The UAE has an abundance of sun - 350 days annually. As such a sunny place the UAE also has more than enough access to the ultraviolet rays that allow our bodies to produce vitamin D, which we need in great quantities. Doctors believe this vital element is essential for building healthy bones, warding off certain cancers, defending against depression, keeping our blood sugar low, and a host of other benefits.
But as The National reported yesterday, the majority of the country's residents are dangerously deficient in vitamin D; about 60 per cent of men and 65 per cent of women do not have enough in their bodies, some of the highest rates of deficiency in the world.
Medical professionals are concerned about these trends, and rightly so. Because the vitamin enables the body to absorb calcium, it is essential for bone and joint health. But that's not all. "Name almost any disease and you'll find it's connected to vitamin D deficiency," said Dr Afrozul Haq, a senior clinical scientist at the Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Institute at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City. So what to do?
Overcoming cultural factors will prove the biggest challenge. Many people avoid direct exposure to the sun to maintain a fairer skin colour. But while too much sun is dangerous, so is too little. Ninety per cent of a person's vitamin D is directly linked to sunlight, but in a society where people, especially women, wear clothing that prevents direct exposure, soaking up enough rays is a unique medical hurdle. Encouraging people to spend more time outdoors, or frequent family beaches or parks even during summer, can help solve such issues.
A smaller but no less important concern are dietary shortcomings. Foods such as milk and fish provide roughly 10 per cent of the recommended intake, but a recent study conducted by students at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi found that most adults do not drink enough fresh milk. Many people also avoid eating salmon, mackerel and sardines that are a rich source of the vitamin. Dr Haq's recommendation that the Government study a vitamin fortification programme - which some western countries employ - is worth considering.
People with vitamin D deficiency often don't develop symptoms. But even with sufficient exposure to sunlight and healthy diets, it is still possible to be deficient in the vitamin for a variety of reasons. It is important, therefore, to get regular screenings to have levels checked.
And while you're at the clinic, try taking a stroll around the block.