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Chasing the sun: Vitamin-D important for immune system more so as we shelter at home

It is almost a century since vitamins, and Vitamin-D in particular, burst into the public consciousness.

, ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Jun 08, 2020, 01.35 PM IST
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The fact that people are sheltering at home, with less exposure to direct sunlight has raised fears of Vitamin-D deficiency, just when we need it most.
In 1967, Berton Roueché, a New Yorker magazine journalist who pioneered writing on medical issues for the general public, wrote about a man whose skin had turned a lurid orange.

No, this was not a future president of the United States, but a plumber from Alaska who worried that limited northern sunlight deprived him of vitamins. He confused Vitamin-D, which our bodies make from exposure to sunlight, with Vitamin-C, which is present in carrots, and ate so much of them that their carotene pigment was deposited in his skin.

This was one of the odder consequences of belief in the value of Vitamin-D which has received a big boost with Covid-19. Vitamin-D is important for our immune systems, which matters as we face the prospect of getting infected and having to fight off the virus. Studies from China, the Philippines and the USA (none clinically tested yet) have suggested links between Vitamin-D deficiency and higher deaths from Covid-19.
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It is almost a century since vitamins, and Vitamin-D in particular, burst into the public consciousness.
It is almost a century since vitamins, and Vitamin-D in particular, burst into the public consciousness.

At the same time, the fact that people are sheltering at home, with less exposure to direct sunlight has raised fears of Vitamin-D deficiency, just when we need it most. Since moderate doses of Vitamin-D can do no harm some countries like Egypt have already started giving it out in quarantine hospitals.

It is almost a century since vitamins, and Vitamin-D in particular, burst into the public consciousness. Scientists had long been aware that diseases like beriberi, scurvy and rickets were caused by dietary deficiencies. Initially they were dealt with by the hit-or-miss approach of finding a substance to remedy it, like lemons for scurvy or brown rice for beriberi.

But in 1912 the Polish biochemist Cazimir Funk coined the term “vital amines”, or vitamins for short, after isolating the one responsible for beriberi. Other biochemists, like the American Elmer McCollum set out to discover other such substances, using experiments where first cows, then rats, were fed diets based on just one type of food, like wheat or oats. If deficiency diseases appeared they were fed substances like milk or egg yolk, and if they improved, these were then analysed. (One side effect of this was that McCollum became an advocate for a lacto-vegetarian diet as nutritionally ideal).

Through the next decades as scientists isolated the range of vitamins, their work caught the public imagination. As Catherine Price writes in The Vitamin Complex, scientists were startled by “the enthusiasm that vitamins would arouse in food marketers, how easily this enthusiasm could be translated to the public, and how quickly the word and concept of a vitamin would take on a life of its own.”

Partly this was because this coincided with the growth of the food manufacturing industry. Consumer suspicions about the health of these products could be countered by manufacturers pointing to their vitamin content, which could be ‘fortified’ as the process was called, subtly increasing the association with strength. Government doctors also liked the idea of vitamins as quick solutions to the nutritional deficiencies that had emerged, particularly in the process of recruiting soldiers for the two World Wars.
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It is almost a century since vitamins, and Vitamin-D in particular, burst into the public consciousness.
It is almost a century since vitamins, and Vitamin-D in particular, burst into the public consciousness.

But consumers also liked the idea of vitamins as a way to take control of their own health, particularly with Vitamin-D, once its link with sunlight was established. It fit with trends to discover nature and start going to the seaside for sunny holidays. But what this mostly Western narrative missed was the complexity of the interaction between sunlight and skin, where too much exposure to its ultra-violet (UV) rays was as harmful as too little exposure for Vitamin-D production.

Over time scientists realised that darker skins guarded against UV rays, but also blocked Vitamin-D production. This wasn’t a problem when most people with darker skins followed lifestyles where they got ample exposure to sunlight, but it became an issue when they moved to less sunny latitudes, or lead more interior lives. A more recent problem could be our increasingly polluted cities where smog further cuts our sunlight exposure.

But the more we learn about Vitamin-D the more mysterious it seems. It is, for example, a hormone as well as a vitamin, and while food fortification works well for other vitamins, it doesn’t seem as effective with Vitamin-D. In the end, the simplest solution seems to work best: seek out the sun, and trust its healing power.

Sound Sleep, Omega-3-Rich Diet, Stress-Free Mind: 5 Ways To Boost Body's Immunity

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For The Healthy You

29 Apr, 2020
As fancy as it sounds, the idea of boosting immunity, has proven to be difficult to materialise in reality. For years, researchers from across the world have been struggling to figure out the accurate formula to achieve a good immune system. Until the formula is known, it is recommended to adopt a healthy lifestyle for an enhanced immune function, and to keep the body intact and healthy.Making healthy lifestyle changes in terms of diet, exercise and managing stress, in addition to other factors, can go a long way in helping the immune system get the boost it requires. On International Immunology Day, Chennai-based clinical nutritionist, lactation consultant and diabetes educator - Ramya Ramachandran - shares five tips that can give your life a healthy spin.
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