Earlier this year the UK’s four Chief Medical Officers wrote to health professionals reminding them to be alert to the signs and symptoms of vitamin D deficiency.
Vitamin D deficiency made news headlines again last week when a young couple called for an inquiry into two London hospitals responsible for the care of their four-month-old son.
Rohan Wray and Chana Al-Alas were acquitted of murdering their baby boy Jayden after it was found that his fractured skull and subsequent brain damage was caused by severe rickets.
Rickets is a disease caused by vitamin-D deficiency that results in bones becoming soft and can lead to bowed legs and curvature of the spine. It is likely that baby Jayden had rickets because of an undiagnosed vitamin D deficiency in his mother.
What is tragic about this particular case is that radiologists at Great Ormond Street and University College hospitals weren’t able to diagnose rickets from scans of baby Jayden and his parents were charged with his murder.
Perhaps, if medical staff were trained to be alert for the symptoms of rickets, this awful misdiagnosis would never have happened.
Sunscreen and Vitamin D deficiency
Subsequent to the death of baby Jayden in 2009, there has been the case of 12 year-old Tyler Atrill from the Isle of Wight whose vitamin D deficiency was so bad it was bordering on rickets. What made this case shocking was that Tyler’s mother had done what we all consider to be the right thing – she had made sure her daughter was always wearing factor 50 sunscreen when she was outside in the sun. The sunscreen prevented the skin from being able to absorb vitamin D from the sunshine.
Low Vitamin D levels
It wasn’t until my osteopath suggested I ask my GP for a vitamin D test that I became aware of how common Vitamin D deficiency is in the UK.
The reason my osteopath thought vitamin D deficiency might be the problem was because of a lack of improvement in my knee pain despite having several treatments. She thought that the pain and stiffness in the knee joint could be a result of vitamin D deficiency.
My blood test results revealed that my vitamin D levels were very low within the normal range. The Ideal vitamin D Target Level is 20-50 ug/L. My level was 21 ug/L. My GP suggested a course of vitamin D3 supplements which I’ve been taking daily ever since.
Since then, I have become more aware of stories of Vitamin D deficiency in the news. Figures differ, but anything between 25% and 50% of the adult population in the UK have low levels of vitamin D in their blood.
Are you at risk of Vitamin D deficiency?
According to the UK Department of Health the following groups of people are at risk of vitamin D deficiency:
- all pregnant* and breastfeeding women, especially teenagers and young women
- infants and young children under 5 years of age
- older people aged 65 years and over
- people who have low or no exposure to the sun, for example those who cover their skin for cultural reasons, who are housebound or confined indoors for long periods
- people who have darker skin, for example people of African, African-Caribbean and South Asian origin, because their bodies are not able to make as much vitamin D.
* In the UK, pregnant women and those with young children in low-income families are entitled to free vitamin D supplements under the NHS’s Healthy Start scheme.
What these guidelines leave out is that people who use sunscreen all the time are also at risk of Vitamin D deficiency.
According to Professor Simon Pearce in an article entitled Rickets warning from doctors as vitamin D deficiency widens in The Guardian:
Vitamin D levels in parts of the population are precarious. The average worker nowadays is in a call centre, not out in the field. People tend to stay at home rather than going outside to kick a ball around. They stay at home on computer games.
How do you know if you are Vitamin D deficient?
Symptoms of Vitamin D deficiency include:
- Arthritis or osteoporosis
- Tooth decay
- Hair loss
- Muscle twitching or spasms
- Joint pain or stiffness
- Weak bones.
What does Vitamin D do?
Vitamin D promotes calcium absorption in the gut and is needed for bone growth. It also plays a part in the modulation of cell growth, neuromuscular and immune function, and reduction of inflammation.
Where is Vitamin D found?
The best sources of Vitamin D are:
- fish, especially herrings, mackerel, salmon and oysters
According to Dr Luisa Dillner writing in The Guardian:
The Office of Dietary Supplements estimates that you would make enough Vitamin D by having between five to 30 minutes exposure to the sun twice a week, between 10am and 3pm, to the face, arms, and legs or back – without sunscreen. If you are in fiercely hot climates you may need to get your sun outside of the hottest times. Babies should never be put in the sun – even with sunscreen.
By following these guidelines and eating a healthy diet you should be able to produce enough vitamin D. But if you feel you don’t get enough sunshine or are following a vegan diet for example, then it is probably best to supplement your diet with 10ug of Vitamin D3 daily.