Get out in the sun to boost vitamin D and help prevent depression
Melanie Swan April 24. 2010
ABU DHABI // Scientists at Zayed University have found strong evidence that further establishes the link between vitamin D deficiency and depression.
In a study of more than 200 students, both male and female, Dr Justin Thomas said that “as one goes up, the other goes up”, showing a correlation.
Around 95 per cent of females and 50 to 60 per cent of males suffer from the vitamin deficiency, according to research carried out at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City (SKMC).
“The aches and pains of vitamin D deficiency can lead to depression,” Dr Thomas said, “while depression can lead to withdrawal from the outside world, hence the vitamin D deficiency. It’s what I call mutual exacerbation. If someone is depressed, it is likely they are deficient and vice versa.”
Dr Ammar Abbas, a specialist at the endocrinology centre at SKMC, said psychologists are increasingly aware that patients must be screened for vitamin D deficiency and depression.
“Patients going to the psychologists are screened for all kinds of conditions and a good psychologist will be aware that this must be a factor to consider,” he said.
Of the sample studied, between five and eight per cent of the students had severe depression and a further 20 per cent suffered from moderate depression.
“The students are very young to have depression,” said Dr Thomas, a psychologist from the department of Natural Science and Public Health.
He said that age 25 “is usually the minimum age of onset, but the average age was 19 in our study.”
The depression levels here are as high as in developing countries, he said. However, unusually, the research found no gender differences between the males and females at the university, who Dr Thomas says are “psychologically super-fit” and very aware of the concepts of depression and its symptoms although this may not be the case across the general population, he concedes.
The majority of the students were also vitamin-D deficient, as was expected, he said.
In Australia, a study at Melbourne University in 1997 suggested treatment of depression could be helped using vitamin D.
A questionnaire given to the Zayed University students posed a series of questions, such as how they viewed tanned skin, how often they spent recreational time outside, their dress code and beliefs about skin cancer.
“So far, everything relating to the sun and sun exposure has been linked to skin cancer, in a negative way, not from the positive angle of vitamin D,” Dr Thomas said.
Students saw even short periods of time in the sun as bad for their health and strongly endorsed reducing sun exposure.
Fatme Alanouti, who is also leading the research and is a faculty member at the university, said: “For the past 20 years we’ve been bombarded with the message to stay out of the sun.” However, she said, sensible exposure to the sun is beneficial.
Ninety per cent of a person’s daily requirement of vitamin D comes from sun exposure, but it can be supplemented with foods such as eggs, salmon and milk.
Patients suffering from the deficiency exhibit symptoms such as muscle aches, back pain, fatigue and susceptibility to fractures. Vitamin D synthesises in the skin after sun exposure to support bone strength.
Vitamin D helps the body to fight chronic illness such as cancer and diabetes and even respiratory illness in children.
A deficiency of vitamin D has been linked to colon cancer, liver or kidney disorders, low immunity and multiple sclerosis, and is also caused by poor diets with high fat levels.
“If the answer to reducing these illnesses is getting out in the sun, it could be that simple,” Dr Thomas said.
He hopes the study will fuel more research in the Gulf and Middle East, where D deficiency is rife. About 73 per cent of females studied in Saudi Arabia were deficient, and 40 per cent in Kuwait.
With funding from the Emirates Foundation and support from SKMC, the university is expanding the study in the coming months.
Free blood screening will be offered at the Armed Forces Officers Club from 10am until 6pm each Saturday, beginning today. mswan at thenational.ae
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