Vitamin D, sometimes known as the 'sunshine vitamin', has a lot of very important functions. Naturally our body produces Vitamin D when we are directly exposed to sunlight, and Vitamin D can also be found through certain foods.
Living in the climate we do here in the UAE, it may be we think that we get enough exposure to the sun that we do not experience any Vitamin D deficiency, however that is not necessarily the case.
Here, Dr Amer Iqbal, Consultant Family Medicine at Mediclinic Al Sufouh, answers some frequently asked questions on Vitamin D.
Q. Why is Vitamin D important for us?
Vitamin D is an essential nutrient required to maintain a healthy balance of calcium in our bodies. It’s required for maintaining healthy bones and teeth.
Over recent years, scientific studies have linked lower Vitamin D levels with obesity, chronic pain, heart failure and even some types of cancers.
Q. What causes Vitamin D deficiency ?
Vitamin D is known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’ because up to 90% of our Vitamin D comes from direct sun exposure. Only 10% of Vitamin D is absorbed through our diets.
Very few foods contain sufficient naturally occurring vitamin D. For this reason many food products have been fortified with Vitamin D e.g. cereals, breads and even water. Food groups rich in naturally occurring Vitamin D include dairy products, egg yolk, red meats and oily fish.
Q. What symptoms point to a Vitamin D deficiency?
Symptoms of low Vitamin D depend on a person’s age, how long they been low in Vitamin D and the severity of the deficiency.
In adults, mild deficiency is linked with a variety of symptoms. Many are vague non-specific e.g. fatigue and generally not feeling well. Some patients with subtle low grade deficiency have no symptoms at all.
Moderate to severe deficiency typically causes symptoms of bone pains, muscle weakness/cramps and even low mood.
In children growing bones are affected by low Vitamin D. This can result in reduced growth and development, muscle cramps, breathing difficulties and even seizures.
Q. What are the health risks of Vitamin D deficiency?
Severely low levels of Vitamin D can lead to softening of the bones which fracture more easily. In adults this is known as osteomalacia and in children this is known as rickets.
Q. How do you test for Vitamin D deficiency?
After a consultation with your family doctor, Vitamin D testing may be requested. The most accurate way to test a Vitamin D level is to take a blood sample from the vein in the arm. This does not require any fasting and can be taken any time of the day.
Q. How can Vitamin D deficiency be treated?
The obvious answer is getting more sun. Practically this can be difficult especially in the UAE where the sun rays can be harsh. Avoiding the peak sun hours, we should try getting into a routine of regular short-burst sun exposure (15 minutes). The ideal time to soak up the sun rays varies depending on which season we are in. During summer you should expose yourself to sunlight between 9am to 10am or 2.30pm to 3.30pm. In the winter there is a larger early morning window of 9.30am to noon.
Depending on the severity of the deficiency you will need to take Vitamin D tablets or injections. It’s very important to follow though the full course which can take several months.
High risk groups e.g. women who are pregnant/ breastfeeding, the elderly and those with a high BMI should take daily maintenance tablets as instructed by their doctors.
Dr Amer Iqbal
Consultant Family Medicine
MEDICLINIC AL SUFOUH