Vitamin D deficiency: could you be at risk?

Posted on 3 April 2018

Many people living in sunny countries experience vitamin D deficiency. We look at why this is.

Otherwise, known as the ‘sunshine’ vitamin, vitamin D helps your body to absorb calcium. Calcium helps build and maintain bone density and plays a role in your immune system as well as several other functions in the body.

Insufficient levels of vitamin D ((25-hydroxyvitamin D (25(OH)D) between 15 and 20 ng/mL (37.5 – 50 nmol/L)) can lead to a loss of bone density which contributes to osteoporosis or fractures. Rarely, in certain high-risk groups, it can lead to a childhood disease called rickets where the bones become soft, weak and eventually malformed.

Getting outdoors

Sunlight exposure is essential to the synthesis or processing of vitamin D. Usually 15 minutes a day in fine weather is sufficient for light-skinned people to get enough vitamin D. However those of medium complexion, for example people of Indian descent, would require about 45 minutes of sun exposure per day. People with very dark skin, for example people of Zulu descent, would require at least an hour of sun exposure per day without any sunblock. It’s important to balance your risk for vitamin D deficiency against a skin cancer risk – don’t exceed the required sun exposure without sunblock and choose to go outdoors before 9 am or after 3 pm when the sun isn’t as harsh.

Other high-risk groups:

  • Disabled individuals who spend most of their days indoors
  • Breastfed babies especially if their mothers were deficient in vitamin D during their pregnancy (ask your doctor about a baby-friendly supplement or include vitamin-D rich foods when you introduce solids)
  • Pregnant women
  • Premature babies who may suffer from temporary malabsorption
  • People who have undergone a gastric bypass 
  • Certain medications and diseases that may cause malabsorption
  • Certain religious or cultural groups who are required to cover up when they are outdoors
  • People in developing countries where food is not routinely fortified
  • The elderly

High-risk groups should ensure they try to maximise their sun exposure. For example, sit in a private outdoor area if they are not permitted to expose their skin in public places. They should also choose foods high in vitamin D such as oily fish, cheese, eggs and fortified foods such as bread and margarine. Supplementation may be required and can be discussed with your healthcare provider.

Did you know? Most nursing units at Mediclinic hospitals have windows overlooking gardens to promote healing.


Reviewed by: Dr Alide Cato practicing at the Emergency Centre, Mediclinic Potchefstroom


Published in Healthy Life

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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