Close to 40 per cent of Indians are vitamin D deficient. This might come as a surprise, since most parts of the country get abundant sunlight throughout the year.
“Vitamin D, also known as the sunshine vitamin, is created in the body with sunlight exposure. Its major function is to maintain normal blood levels of calcium and phosphorus, which keeps the bones strong,” says Rekha Sharma, president, Indian Dietetic Association and director, Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics, Diabetes Foundation. Experts say our modern lifestyle is one of the major reasons for vitamin D deficiency.
Causes of vitamin D deficiency Indoor activities: It seems working from dawn to dusk in air-conditioned offices and time spent indoors have starved the supply of vitamin D in the body. Dr Anup Dhir, chief cosmetic surgeon, Indraprastha Apollo Hospital, says, “From professionals and students to housewives, no one comes in contact with adequate sunlight, due to which vitamin D deficiency is rampant today.”
Shunning the sun: “People are reluctant to go out in the sun. Those who stay indoors a lot or cover their body when outside are most likely to suffer from the deficiency,” says Anil Nayak, disease expert, Kartavya Healtheon, a health management company. Glass windows don’t help either, so you don’t generate vitamin D when sitting in your car or while at home.
Indian skin tone: Melanin reduces the skin’s ability to make vitamin D. “People with dark skin pigmentation may need 20-30 times more exposure to sunlight as compared to fair-skinned people to generate the same amount of vitamin D,” says Nayak.
Use of sunscreen: Sunscreen lotions fight the sun and prevent vitamin D synthesis. “Sunscreen use can potentially lead to vitamin D deficiency, particularly if high sun protection factor (SPF) creams (factor 15 or above) are used,” says Nayak. However, don’t abandon sunscreen altogether, because humans, especially children, still need protection from the harmful effect of the sun’s rays, especially at midday.
Vegetarian diet: Your body may lack the sunshine vitamin if you eat a largely vegetarian diet. “Vitamin D is found primarily in animal products such as dairy foods, liver, eggs, fish and fish oils,” says Dr Sharma. However, Nayak adds that “Diet alone cannot provide an adequate amount of vitamin D. Sunlight exposure is the only reliable way to generate it.”
Obesity: Being overweight also adds to the problem. “Vitamin D is extracted from the blood by fat cells, altering its release in the body. People with a body mass index of 30 or greater often have low blood levels of vitamin D,” explains Nayak.
How to fight it
Get the right amount of sunlight
“Twenty minutes of good exposure, two to three times a week, with bare arms and face, is enough to achieve healthy vitamin D levels through the year,” says Dr Sharma. But don’t go overboard. “The sun’s rays can also cause sunburn, so don’t expose yourself to it for a very long time,” warns Dr Sharma. The right diet and outdoor activity Consume foods rich in vitamin D and calcium. “Include foods like salmon, sardines, eggs and meat, breakfast cereals, soy products, dairy products, and low-fat spreads in your diet,” suggests Dr Dhir. The Indian Council of Medical Research recommends outdoor physical activity to achieve adequate vitamin D levels and asks that one control obesity. And that applies to all age groups.