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What you need to know about Vitamin D deficiency

Many people are deficient in vitamin D – the vitamin that builds strong bones and prevents several diseases.

Did you know that a lack of vitamin D can cause cardiac problems which, can increase the risk of developing coronary artery disease, heart attacks and strokes?

Vitamin D deficiency affects about two in three South Africans, and may be a major underlying cause of illness and serious infections, says top South African nutritional consultant, Vanessa Ascencao.

Pregnancy and Vitamin D deficiency

Vitamin D deficiency in pregnant women is associated with an increased risk of pre-eclampsia and gestational diabetes. Observational studies also show that vitamin D levels during pregnancy influence foetal bone development and a child’s growth, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO),

The WHO says it’s not yet clear if maternal vitamin D deficiency leads to neonatal rickets.

“Rickets or the formation of ‘soft bones’ is the direct result of vitamin D deficiency in children younger than two years,” says paediatrician Dr Nancy Obor. “This may also present as convulsions (fits) or an apnoea attack (cessation of breathing) in young infants and as osteomalacia (thin bones) in older children,” she says. Bone and muscle pain will also be present. They may also have low muscle tone, delayed motor milestones, and a protruding abdomen.

A word on breast milk

While breast milk remains the best food for babies, it doesn’t contain much vitamin D, which means that if you have a deficiency, your child will be at risk too.

“Your child will also be at risk if he’s cooped up inside all day,” says Dr Obor. This suburban problem is triggered by a fear of sun exposure. “This is exactly what happened to a toddler I saw recently, who lived in a high-rise apartment,” she adds.

Find a balance

Surely preventing skin cancer should be the main concern? Dr Lorraine Becker, a Johannesburg-based family health practitioner, insists it’s vital to be sun smart, but adds that regular exposure to the sun’s UV rays is essential: “Especially when it comes to young children,” she adds.

“You build your body’s bone mass for the first 25 years and it’s important to get a good start, because it’s downhill from there on. Remember that while UV light is the ‘baddy’ in skin cancer, it plays a crucial role in converting the inactive form of vitamin D that’s found in the skin into D3, the active form that your body needs. If you’re going to supplement, make sure it’s with vitamin D3.

“Current vitamin D recommendations for adults are between 600IU and 1 000IU a day, which is why getting outdoors is essential.”

Side effects of Vitamin D deficiency

Dr Becker says that while more research is needed to determine the exact impact of low vitamin D levels, they’re increasingly linked to a range of health conditions. These include a higher risk of:

  • Severe asthma in children
  • Colds and flu in children and adults
  • Heart disease
  • Colon, breast, and prostate cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia.

3 Sun savvy tips

Prevent both vitamin D deficiency and the risk of skin cancer by following CANSA’S guidelines:

  1. Expose your child’s upper body to 10 to 20 minutes of sun before 10 am and after 3 pm as often as possible.
  2. Use sunscreen but avoid protective clothing, as vitamin D can’t be produced when the skin is covered. Put these, plus a hat, on after 10 to 20 minutes.
  3. Extended unprotected sun exposure will have no impact on vitamin D levels, but will increase the risk of skin cancer.

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