THE SUNSHINE PANDEMIC

HEALTH

Vitamin D deficiency is becoming a worldwide concern for health professionals, as an increasingly indoor lifestyle deprives our bodies of a vital vitamin.

You know about vitamin C; you may already be taking it to combat winter flus and colds. And you’re doubtless aware that the B vitamins are going to up your energy levels, As are good for vision, and the Es are just what you need for healthy skin. But Vitamin D? Well, that’s the sunshine vitamin, right? We're swimming in it!

Wrong. Vitamin D acts more as a hormone than a vitamin, and it is integral to almost every process and system in the body. Not only is this ‘vitamin’ crucial to bones and cells, it aids in the regulation of both the immune and neuromuscular systems. All of which means that, when your levels are reduced, you might well end up suffering anything from extreme fatigue to chronic bone, back and muscle pain, along with digestive issues, a compromised immune system, depression and anxiety, obesity and even hair loss. And it’s not only more than enough to completely destroy your quality of life, it’s a Very Real Problem here in Cyprus.

If you look at the stats, you’ll find the countries with the highest rates of vitamin D deficiency are in the Middle East. It may seem illogical, but think for a minute about living in a colder country… The minute there’s sun, you’re all outside; spot a ray or two, and it’s cause to strip off the layers and bake in the park. But here in the hotter climes, sunshine is often seen as the enemy; other than the odd trip to the beach, we tend to live carefully insulated, air-conditioned, sun-blocked lives. Plus, after thousands of years of sun exposure, anyone with darker skin has an in-built protection against absorbing too much vitamin D. And this, it seems, is causing any amount of health problems.

In Scandinavia, where winter brings just a few hours of sun per day (none if it’s cloudy!) the government actually issues directives on how much vitamin D to take. In Norway, the Food Safety Authority advises residents get at least 10µg of the stuff a day, along with regular sun exposure and vitamin D rich foods. Many people take vitamin D-rich cod liver oil on a daily basis, and the careful use of sunbeds – especially in the winter months – is advocated. Even the Brits are getting in on the act, with a Public Health England report suggesting that during the coldest parts of the year vitamin D supplements should be taken by absolutely everyone… Not just the under-fives and the elderly: the two demographics most at risk of deficiency.

A recent study conducted by The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association reported an astoundingly high figure of vitamin D deficiency worldwide: approximately 1 billion individuals, nearly 15 per cent of the world’s population, are vitamin D deficient or insufficient. And the worst of the epidemic is in the hotter countries. Generally, the darker the skin, the less vitamin D your body is able to absorb. Add to that our climate-controlled lives, and you end up with studies which suggest nearly 50 per cent of the entire population of Iran, 60 per cent of Saudis, and over 90 per cent of residents of the UAE are deficient in vitamin D.

 

Here in Cyprus the figures are lower – but only slightly. Until the last decade, there’d been little research into local statistics, but all that’s now beginning to change…

 

“I think, what we’re beginning to realise, is the whole nation is at risk,” says Dr George Samoutis, Associate Professor of Primary Care at the University of Nicosia Medical School.

 

A physician concerned with primary and community healthcare, chronic disease management, and healthcare quality improvement, Dr Samoutis has co-authored a number of regional studies, which found that only one in ten Cypriot adolescents have sufficient levels of vitamin D, while over 30 per cent were suffering from what is classified as a deficiency, and 4 per cent were ‘severely deficient.’

“Lower vitamin D was associated with winter and spring season, female gender, reduced sun exposure in winter and darker skin,” explains the study.

“We’ve conducted studies which estimate that only one third of the population in both Cyprus and Greece has normal levels of vitamin D,” Dr Samoutis reveals. “It’s a paradox which we theorise can be explained by the lifestyle changes of the last few decades.”

 

For thousands of years, he expounds, a large percentage of Cypriots worked in agriculture, and this sun exposure has led to modified absorption to protect against vitamin D toxicity. Today, however, with indoor activities the norm, “we theorise that there’s a delay in the adjustment of the genes. We need,” he adds, “more studies, more randomised control trials and the like, because vitamin D insufficiency and deficiency is a very real problem here in Cyprus.”

Another study looked at the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in both Greece and Cyprus. Over a five-year period, 2,594 Cypriot subjects were tested “to examine the relationship between potential risk factors and vitamin D levels.” A total of 69.28% of the Cypriot subjects (and 73.07% of the Greek) were found to have inadequate levels of vitamin D (generally recognised as anything below 30 ng/ml, though many medics now suggest anything below 50 ng/ml is deficient), and concluded that “an early identification of vitamin D deficiency is now considered the cornerstone of preventive medicine.”

Preventive? Yes. Because low levels of vitamin D have been implicated in any number of chronic diseases, including fibromyalgia, asthma, diabetes, osteoporosis and hypertension. The Vitamin D Council (a scientist-led group promoting vitamin D deficiency awareness) suggests vitamin D treatment could be helpful in treating or preventing autism, autoimmune disease, chronic pain, neuromuscular diseases, and osteoporosis.

 

“And there’s also,” adds Dr Samoutis, “a strong risk of vitamin D deficiency increasing the risk of prostate, breast, colon and pancreatic cancers. It’s been estimated that an intake of just 1,000 IU (about 25µg) a day can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer by up to 50 per cent!” he adds.

But it’s not only the body: vitamin D (or lack thereof) has also been proven to have a fairly substantial effect on brain chemistry: we all know about Seasonal Affective Disorder, but investigations have also linked vitamin D deficiency to mental issues such as depression, anxiety and Alzheimer’s. The list of links is growing, it seems, along with the research.

There’s a message here. Genetic predispositions to absorption issues aside, everyone’s levels of vitamin D are generally highest post-summer, in September. But as the cold weather begins, and we all head inside, our levels tend to fall. A simple blood test of your vitamin D levels (something that’s so simple, in fact, that it’s often overlooked in favour of more specialised diagnoses) can tell you if your levels are low. And if they are, well, any GP can prescribe just what you need to make sure you’re getting enough of this vital sunshine vitamin!