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Adequate levels of the sunshine vitamin in the body is a must, say doctors Image Credit: Stock photo

Abu Dhabi: Having sufficient levels of Vitamin D could well reduce the severity of COVID-19 in affected patients, experts at an international conference hosted out of Abu Dhabi said on Thursday.

The sunshine vitamin, which is known to be essential for overall physical and mental health, can also prevent severe autoimmune responses like the cytokine storm seen in some patients, they added during the Abu Dhabi Annual International Conference on Vitamin D Deficiency and Human Health.

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“There is good, experimental, laboratory evidence that Vitamin D can have direct antiviral activity. In other words, it can suppress the reproduction or replication of the virus at the site of infection. In addition, the Vitamin also suppresses the cytokine storms — the out-of-control inflammatory response — that you see in some patients with COVID-19,” said Dr John White, chair of the Department of Physiology at the McGill University in Canada.

The researcher has been studying the biology of Vitamin D for over two decades, and delivered a keynote address to discuss the relationship between COVID-19 and Vitamin D at the virtual conference organised by VPS Healthcare, in association with Zayed University.

Dr John White

Dr John White

Helps suppress severity

“My feeling is several months from now, when the results of the [COVID-19] clinical trials are in, the evidence will show that Vitamin D will help to suppress the severity of [this viral illness as well], even though I don’t know if [having sufficient Vitamin D actually] prevents people from getting infected,” he added.

Even Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the United States’ National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who is known as one of the world’s leading immunologists, has admitted to regularly taking Vitamin D supplements.

Given the overwhelming scientific evidence about the generally protective effects of Vitamin D, Gulf News spoke to Dr Fatme Al Amouti, chair of the scientific committee for the Vitamin D conference. Dr Al Amouti is also associate professor at the Zayed University College of Natural and Health Sciences.

What is the consensus on Vitamin D? Is there a need for UAE residents to take it as a supplement, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Over years of research, Vitamin D has shown to have a protective effect against viral illnesses, so it is a good idea to ensure that you are not deficient in Vitamin D levels as the world battles the pandemic.

Dr Fatme Al Amouti

Dr Fatme Al Amouti

In many Arctic countries like Canada, people are recommended to take supplements during the winter months, when there is no sunlight.

Here in the UAE, even with abundant sunlight, people tend to stay indoors all year round, and this prevents them from getting Vitamin D naturally. So it is a good idea to take Vitamin D supplements here as well, especially if you have risk factors for being deficient.

How can I know if I am prone to Vitamin D deficiency?

If you don’t eat a Vitamin D-rich diet, and tend to stay indoors for most of the time, then you are likely to be deficient.

How can I check my levels of Vitamin D?

Vitamin D levels can be checked through a blood test. Your physician can also often determine if you have any signs of deficiency by speaking with you.

Should I simply purchase Vitamin D over-the-counter?

The international recommendation is for adults to take between 1,000 — 2,000 international units of Vitamin D every day. This should be enough to resolve deficiencies, and there is very little chance of the vitamin being toxic if taken at these levels.

However, the right dosage is best recommended by a physician, who will recommend how much to take based on your age, weight, complexion and sun exposure.

For instance, if you are older or heavier, you will need a higher dose. If you have darker skin, the melanin reduces the amount of Vitamin D your skin can synthesise with a certain amount of sun exposure compared to a person with a lighter complexion, so you will need to take more Vitamin D.

What are the best food-based sources of Vitamin D?

Not too many food sources are very good sources of but salmon, sardines, tuna and mackerel have a significant amount. Livers is also a good source, and eggs have Vitamin D too.

Of course, the best natural source is the sun; as we all know, the skin has the ability to synthesise the vitamin when exposed to sunlight.

How good is milk as a source of Vitamin D?

Many brands of milk are artificially fortified with Vitamin D. And while this can help increase your levels to a certain extent, it is difficult to ascertain just how effective supplementation through milk can be. The chances are that the levels of the vitamin in milk are low, at best, so it should not be the only way to supplement.

The sun is known to be the best source for Vitamin D, but what about the risk of skin cancer from the sun’s UV radiation?

Your body cannot synthesise toxic amounts of Vitamin D with sun exposure, so enough sun exposure is a sure-fire way to get enough Vitamin D.

But it is true that the sun’s radiation can expose you to the risk of skin cancers. This is why we call for sensible sun exposure: limited periods of exposure without sunscreen, and the use of sunscreen if you are staying out too long.

How much sun exposure do I need and when is it best to get it?

On average, a person who is not particularly Vitamin D deficient needs about 15 minutes of sun exposure at a time a few times during the week.

But this has to be adjusted based on factors like your weight, age, complexion and amount of skin exposed. For instance, a person who has a darker complexion should aim for five to 10 minutes more in the sun.

The best time for sun exposure is between 10AM and 3PM, especially in the UAE’s winter months.

Can I wear sunscreen if I go out with the aim of getting enough Vitamin D?

No, as wearing sunscreen prevents Vitamin D synthesis by 90 to 100 per cent. Make sure not to wear sunscreen, but also don’t stay out too long.

Do I need sun exposure every day to get enough Vitamin D?

The good thing is that your body can synthesise Vitamin D at times when it doesn’t get sun exposure. So I would recommend getting some sun over the weekend, and allowing your body to synthesise its own vitamin during the week.

What can a person who wears the hijab do to get Vitamin D from the sun?

The more skin you expose, the bigger the surface for Vitamin D synthesis. So naturally, if you expose less skin, [like the face and hands only], you need to increase the amount of time you spend outside, say 20-30 minutes on average.

In addition, if people who wear the hijab have their own gardens or can go to the ladies beach, that would be a good way to get some sun.

What is the correct recommended dose for children?

Because of its low toxicity, the recommended dose for children has been increased from 400 international units a day to 600-800 international units. This can be obtained from Vitamin D gummies, for instance.

Also, children’s formula milk is typically fortified with Vitamin D, while doctors in the UAE prescribe drops for breastfed children because mother’s milk does not contain Vitamin D.

Role of Vitamin D for human health

Over years of research, scientists have established that Vitamin D is essential for overall well-being. It has protective effects that work against cancer, heart disease, hypertension, depression, obesity and type 2 diabetes. Conversely, people with Vitamin D deficiency are prone to fractures and falls, cognitive impairment, and autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.