A young woman in a sari holding a white ceramic mug looks out a window and into the distance.

VITAMIN D: THE SUNSHINE VITAMIN

Vitamin D is called “the sunshine vitamin” because your skin makes it when it’s exposed to sunlight. However, it’s estimated that more than 70 percent of Indians are Vitamin D deficient, partly due to religious, cultural and dietary influences.1

THE ROLE OF VITAMIN D
Vitamin D helps your muscles move, your nerves transmit messages and your immune system fight off infection. But one of its most important roles is to help your body absorb calcium. If you don’t get enough Vitamin D, your body will leach calcium from your bones to get what it needs.2, 3

In adults, this may lead to osteoporosis, a condition that causes bones to become weak, brittle and more prone to fractures.1 In children, Vitamin D deficiency may cause rickets, a disease that can lead to dental and skeletal deformities, bone pain or tenderness, impaired growth and more.4 In fact, the search for an effective treatment for rickets in the early 20th Century is what led scientists to discover Vitamin D.5

In recent years, some studies have also linked Vitamin D deficiency with an increased risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer and depression. However, more studies are needed to substantiate these findings.3

SOURCES OF VITAMIN D
Very few foods have Vitamin D in them naturally. Some of the best dietary sources include fish liver oils and fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and tuna. Milk has only a small amount of Vitamin D unless it’s fortified, which is rare in India. You can also find small amounts of the vitamin in cheese and egg yolks.1, 2

Your body also makes Vitamin D when your skin is exposed to ultraviolet B (UVB) rays from the sun. However, many things affect your UVB exposure and ability to produce Vitamin D, including your age, your skin tone, how much of your skin is covered by clothing, whether you wear sunscreen, the season, where you live, and both the amount of time and what time of day you spend outside.3

VITAMIN D DEFICIENCY IN INDIA
It’s estimated that more than 70 percent of people in India have a deficiency of Vitamin D, which is quite surprising considering the bright sunshine prevailing in most parts of the country throughout much of the year, except for the monsoon months. However, multiple factors contribute to Vitamin D deficiency in Indians:1

  • SKIN COLOR: Indians’ darker skin tone has high melanin content, which acts as a natural sunscreen and reduces the amount of Vitamin D that the body produces.
  • CULTURAL NORMS: Due to socioreligious and cultural practices, many Indians cover most of their bodies when in public, which limits how much skin is exposed to the sun’s rays and, consequently, how much Vitamin D their bodies can make.
  • EATING HABITS: Most Indians are vegetarians. Thus, they do not eat one of the best food sources of Vitamin D: fatty fish. Other foods rich in Vitamin D are limited and often unaffordable for many Indians. In addition, fortifying milk and other foods with Vitamin D, which is widely prevalent in many western countries, is not common in India.

Your body also makes Vitamin D when your skin is exposed to ultraviolet B (UVB) rays from the sun. However, many things affect your UVB exposure and ability to produce Vitamin D, including your age, your skin tone, how much of your skin is covered by clothing, whether you wear sunscreen, the season, where you live, and both the amount of time and what time of day you spend outside.2

PREVENTING DEFICIENCY
As adequate sun exposure may be infeasible for most Indians, and dietary sources rich in Vitamin D are often limited, unaffordable and not an option for the country’s largely vegetarian population, supplements and fortified foods may be necessary for optimal health.1 However, Vitamin D can interact with some medications.2 And, since it’s fat soluble, Vitamin D is stored in your liver and fat tissues and can build up toxic levels over time if you take too much. So, be sure to talk to your doctor before taking Vitamin D or other supplements.3

1.Ritu G and Ajay Gupta: Vitamin D Deficiency in India: Prevalence, Causalities and Interventions: Nutrients 2014, 6, 729-775; doi:10.3390/nu6020729. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3942730/. Accessed August 28, 2014
2.National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin D: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/ and http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-Consumer/. Accessed August 29, 2014.
3. Harvard Medical School. Harvard Health Publications. The Truth About Vitamins and Minerals: Choosing the Nutrients You Need to Stay Healthy. 2012.
4. National Institutes of Health. MedlinePlus. Rickets. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000344.htm. Accessed August 28, 2014.
5. Wolf G; The Discovery of Vitamin D: The Contribution of Adolf Windaus. J. Nutr. June 1, 2004 vol. 134 no. 6 1299-1302. http://jn.nutrition.org/content/134/6/1299. Accessed August 28, 2014.

 

Information provided is for general background purposes and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment by a trained professional. You should always consult your physician about any healthcare questions you may have, especially before trying a new medication, diet, fitness program, or approach to healthcare issues.
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