ABU DHABI // A lack of vitamin D is responsible for many health problems, and the only way to combat it is for people across the country to have more regular check-ups, medical professionals say. One of the biggest contributing factors is not getting enough sun. Just a few minutes of sunlight a day can make a huge difference. Dr Afrozul Haq analyses about 110 blood samples a day in his role as a senior clinical scientist in the department of laboratory medicine at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City.
"You name the disease, and vitamin D is playing a role," he said. "The importance is being realised by health professionals." Over the past two years examining 80,000 blood samples, Dr Haq found that 65 per cent of women and 60 per cent of men had vitamin D deficiencies. Sometimes he finds levels of just 10 nanomoles per litre, compared with healthy amounts of 75 to 200 nanomoles per litre. "It's common in a sunny climate," he said. "The main reason is people are concerned by the strong sun. Here there is the traditional way of clothes, the abaya, and people who are working in the office, they spend most of their time inside."
Dalya Gomaa of Dubai, the vice president of sales and marketing at Ethos Consultancy, agreed. Ms Gomaa, who has three children, knows that although vitamin D is important, she and her family may not get enough because they are rarely outside in the sun. Most of the time, she said, it was just too hot. "We were in Canada last summer and it was nice to go for a walk," added Ms Gomaa, who came here from Egypt. "But here, what do you do? You go to work, you go to your car, you go to the mall."
Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium from food and drinks and, while it is essential for healthy bones, muscles and teeth, research in recent years indicates it is also deeply involved in most of the body's cellular processes and affects the entire immune system. It also serves as a glucose regulator, and low levels are usually seen in people with diabetes. Vitamin D deficiency can lead to serious health problems including depression, multiple sclerosis and heart disease. It can increase by 30 to 50 per cent the risk of developing breast, prostate and colon cancer.
A study published in the January-February issue of the medical journal Endocrine Practice involving 87 Arab women living in Dearborn, Michigan, found their conservative dress had a significant effect on their vitamin D levels. All of them had 25 per cent, or less, of the vitamin D they required, and the levels got lower in veiled women. Raymond Hobbs, the lead author of the study and a senior staff physician in the department of internal medicine at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, said some levels were so low they could not even be measured.
Studies show the situation has been reflected even in the sunny Middle East, Dr Hobbs said. "The thing I want is awareness," he said. "The key thing is for them to get their vitamin D levels checked. Once you find out what that is, you know what to do." Testing for screening purposes - that is, with no medical problem prompting a doctor to ask for it - is not yet covered by most medical insurance plans.
Although vitamin D is found in some foods, such as oily fish, eggs and fortified milk, the amounts are often minimal and not sufficient to maintain the level the body needs. A person would have to eat 80 eggs or drink 20 glasses of milk a day to get the proper amounts, Dr Hobbs said. The most effective way people can boost their levels is still regular exposure to sunlight - 10 or 20 minutes on a regular basis.
"The body is capable of making 100,000 to 200,000 units of vitamin D from moderate sun exposure," said Dr Hobbs. "It will only make as much as is needed." email@example.com