This is a nutrient that protects your brain, heart and bones. It, in fact, helps you live longer. It is 100 percent free, and all you have to do to get it is go outdoors. Seems like something everyone would have plenty of, right? Not really.
Most Indians do not get sufficient vitamin D, which is created by our cells when our skin is exposed to sunlight. “Vitamin D deficiency is one of the most common health problems in the world,” says Dr Anil Arora, department of orthopedics, Max Super Specialty Hospital, Delhi. “Close to 40 percent Indians are vitamin D deficient. This might come as a surprise, as most parts of the country get abundant sunlight throughout the year.”
Besides a general lack of outdoor activity and less exposure to sun, hereditary factors also cause vitamin D deficiency. The dope on vitamin D Vitamin D is called the sunshine vitamin. It, however, is not a regular vitamin. It is a steroid hormone that one obtains through exposure to sun. “Vitamin D deficiency affects differently at different ages—in childhood the deficiency causes a condition called rickets in which the bones become spongy and leads to bowing of the legs, lethargy and retarded dentition,” explains Dr Tejas Upasani, orthopaedic surgeon, Upasani Hospital, Mumbai.
“Later in life, the deficiency causes a condition called osteomalacia, in which patients get vague bone pains and muscle weakness. In elderly people, vitamin D deficiency causes osteoporosis, which makes a person prone to fractures.”
Are women more vulnerable?
Probably yes, says Dr Anita Suryanarayan, vice president, operations (south India and Sri Lanka), Metropolis Health Care, a multinational chain of diagnostic centers. “Deficiency of vitamin D is very prevalent in osteoporosis, which is associated with women after menopause. Vitamin D and calcium are related, so when there is a lack of vitamin D in the diet, calcium levels drop and the body starts to absorb calcium from the bones. Th is leads to brittle bones and osteoporosis.”
The alarm bells
The biggest sign that you are suffering from vitamin D deficiency is a feeling of being constantly exhausted. “It is often subtle, but some experience aches and pains in the bones, known as osteomalacia,” says Arora.
It was mood swings and a constant fatigue that led PR professional Shamika Prabhu, 25, to go for a blood test. The result revealed an abysmally low level of vitamin D, and he was advised a course of injections. The down-in-the-dumps mood is another sign. Serotonin, the brain hormone associated with mood elevation, rises and falls in proportion to sunlight exposure. If the discomfort lasts for several weeks, consult a doctor.
Th e best way to get vitamin D is by exposing your bare skin to sunlight (ultraviolet B rays). Th e fair-skinned need just 10 minutes in the sun in shorts and a top, with no sunscreen. “Dark-skinned individuals and the elderly are more prone to deficiency,” explains Dr Kalpana Shekhawat, metabolic disease management consultant, SENS Anti-Aging & Wellness, Delhi. “Melanin prevents skin damage from too much UVB exposure, so darker skin with more melanin allows less UVB to enter. So, if you are dark-skinned, you need more sun exposure.”
Around 20-30 minutes under the morning sun (between 8am and 10am) is good enough. Those who cannot get enough sunlight or are worried about exposing their skin to sunlight can opt for supplements, which come as tablets, capsules and injectables.
Phorum Dalal, 31, had to resort to injectables when her vitamin D dipped to dangerously low levels. “I used to have persistent body ache and constantly felt low on energy,” says the media professional. “The deficiency also led to a bout of depression.”
Our body gets most of the vitamins and minerals from the food we eat. However, only a few food items naturally contain vitamin D, and most of them contain small amounts. So it is almost impossible to get what our body needs just from food. Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and tuna are great sources. Milk and milk products, egg yolk, cod liver oil, chicken liver are also rich in vitamin D. Mushrooms, cereals, green leafy vegetables and nuts are perfect choices for vegetarians. Incidentally, the quality of milk and milk products in Asian countries is highly inferior when compared with Europe and the US, says Dr Prakash Doshi, chief of orthopedics & traumatology, Nanavati Super Speciality Hospital, Mumbai. And this adds to the problem.
Age is also a contributing factor. “The body’s capability to synthesize vitamin D reduces with age, making elderly people and those staying indoors, more prone to vitamin D deficiency,” adds Doshi. Compounding the problem is our overuse of sunscreen (SPF 15 blocks 93 percent of UVB rays).
What should you do?
Go for an annual vitamin D blood test. And, most importantly, load up on vitamin D-rich food and face the sun!
(In arrangement with SMARTlife)