2020 has been the year we’re all rediscovering the joy of being indoors. And while staying at home may have done wonders for our baking or cooking skills, it could have had an adverse effect on our health – more specifically on our vitamin D levels.
The sunshine vitamin, as it is often referred to, is synthesised within the body, with as little as 15 to 30 minutes of sunlight doing wonders for our health.
While the UAE may enjoy year-round sunshine, residents still need to ensure they get in that daily dose of sunlight. In fact, according to a two-year Dubai Healthy Authority study presented in 2017, up to 90 per cent of the population may be vitamin D deficient. And the 2020 pandemic may have led to an increase in that number.
“Nowadays, with fewer people stepping out of their homes because of limited mobility and hot weather, there’s even less exposure to sunlight. Therefore, we need to be more careful and read the signs for vitamin D deficiency and take appropriate measures,” says Dr Raza Siddiqui, executive director at RAK Hospital.
Vitamin D deficiency is mainly responsible for calcium absorption from the gut, which directly affects bone health. In children, it can manifest as rickets, which presents as bowing of the legs, while in adults, it results in osteomalacia (the softening of the bones which can lead to chronic muscle aches and pains). Vitamin D also plays other important roles, such as cell growth modulation, neuromuscular and immune function, and helps in the reduction of inflammation.
"Vitamin D deficiency happens due to limited exposure to sunlight. People suffering from the deficiency generally lack a feeling of well-being stemming from muscle pain, fatigue, hair loss, low energy and at times depression," adds Siddiqui. "However, the signs are often subtle, and people who don't watch out for them may not connect the dots."
According to Dr Harkirat S Wilkhoo, health and lifestyle coach at RAK hospital, here are some symptoms of Vitamin D deficiency:
- Weak immunity: Those with Vitamin D deficiency may be prone to frequent and recurrent infections. It is especially vital to have a strong immune system during the pandemic – just another reason to boost that vitamin D level.
- Muscular pain and weakness: feeling fatigued and tired, mostly due to weak muscles, can be a sign of deficiency. Having lower back, spinal and joints pain is also common.
- Slow healing: Reduced calcium absorption and muscle fibre formation leads to slow wound or injury healing.
- Bone loss: Low calcium and phosphate leads to degenerative changes and weak bones and osteoporosis.
- Changes in mood: Feeling confused, stressed or even depressed can be due to lack of the sunshine vitamin.
- Unexplained hair loss: Noticing you are shedding more hair than usual or feeling your hair start to thin can be a sign of vitamin D deficiency.
Wilkhoo also points out that other the factors that affect vitamin D levels in individuals include age, obesity, whether or not they smoke, skin pigmentation and irritable bowel syndrome (due to the malabsorption of minerals and vitamins).
How to up your vitamin D intake
According to Dr Maha Osman, specialist family medicine at Medcare Medical Centre, Mirdif Uptown, there is no proper replacement for getting some sun.
“Between 10am and 3pm, being exposed to the sun produces vitamin D in the skin that may last twice as long in the blood as compared with ingested Vitamin D,” she says.
While most dietary sources of vitamin D do not contain sufficient amounts of the vitamin to satisfy daily requirements, some foods that can aid the process are fortified milk, fortified orange juice, fortified cereal, mackerel, canned sardines, canned salmon, pickled herring, codfish, swiss cheese and mushrooms.
Individuals can also speak to their doctors about taking vitamin D supplements, adds Osman. "For those under the age of 1, 400 IU per day is standard, whereas in children and adults, dosage can range from 600-800 IU per day."
Exact quantities might vary from person to person; contact your medical practitioner for details.