What’s wrong with this picture? Your kid comes home from school, does homework for an hour or two, heads out the door to play baseball with friends in the hot sun, but before he exits, you remind him to put on suntan lotion. If you guessed that the problem was baseball, you were wrong. (For shame, how could you think anything was wrong with baseball?) On the other hand, if you guessed “suntan lotion,” you were correct. A new study has found that a startling number of kids are deficient in vitamin D, and since exposure to sunlight creates vitamin D, indications are that one of the main culprits may be suntan lotion. Other suspected factors include spending too much time indoors, and too little dietary vitamin D.
According to two studies just published in the journal, Pediatrics, vitamin D shortage affects at least 70 percent of American youth. Both of the studies analyzed the same data, which was collected from over 6000 kids aged one to 21 between 2000 and 2004. Of the subjects, nine percent showed a vitamin D “deficiency,” and 61 percent had “insufficient” vitamin D. Experts consider 30 nanograms of vitamin D per milliliter of blood desirable. The blood levels of the insufficient group measured between 15-29, and the deficient group measured a mere 14 nanograms per milliliter or less. Extrapolated to the population at large, that comes to a total of almost 58 million kids, nationwide, who are either vitamin D insufficient or deficient.
Even the researchers were astounded at the results. “We expected the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency would be high,” said Dr. Juhi Kumar of Children’s Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center, “but the magnitude of the problem nationwide was shocking.” And study director Dr. Michel L. Melamed of the Albert Einstein School of Medicine said the results were so surprising that “we sat on our data for six months. We didn’t publish until it was confirmed by other people that we had the right numbers.”
It’s an epidemic, in other words, and one with serious implications. I reported last year about studies that found 40 percent of kids under age two lacked enough vitamin D, but these new studies up the ante. At the extreme edge, vitamin D deficiency can cause rickets, which results in deformed, weakened bones and soft teeth. Although rickets has been all but eradicated in developed countries in recent generations, it’s on the rise again, but according to Dr. Michael F. Holick, a professor at Boston University School of Medicine, and the author of The Vitamin D Solution, “Rickets is just the tip of the iceberg. Vitamin-D deficiency has insidious, serious long-term health consequences for children that could remain with them throughout their lives.”
As these studies confirmed, those health consequences include cardiovascular challenges and imbalances that could give rise to diabetes and heart disease. In the survey group, the 25 percent of kids with the lowest vitamin D levels had a 2.36 increased risk of hypertension, a 54 percent increased risk of low HDL cholesterol, and a more than two hundred percent increased risk of elevated blood sugar. They also were almost 400 percent more likely to have metabolic syndrome, which involves multiple risk factors for heart disease. As Dr. Melamed points out, “Low Vitamin D levels have been linked to diabetes, to high blood pressure, to all different types of cancer, including colon cancer, and breast cancer, and to cardiovascular disease.”
The problem is that sunlight exposure is the best way to get vitamin D into the system, and kids just aren’t getting enough sun (nor, for that matter, are their parents). Dietary sources are so limited. Milk is one source, but to drink it means taking on the problems associated with dairy products; and besides, kids now drink more sodas and energy drinks than milk. Certainly, playing outside would be the healthiest solution, but kids these days just don’t spend time outside as much as they once did. Indoor entertainment has become far more compelling, contributing to the obesity factor as well as to the lack of sunlight exposure. And then there’s sunscreen. For several years now doctors have been telling parents to protect their kids with sunscreen. (Big sigh!!! And, yes, once again, I must ask, “Why would anyone listen to a doctor when it comes to issues of natural health? When’s the last time they got anything right?”) The net result is that when the kids do go out, they typically put on sunscreen, and so they can end up getting almost no sun exposure at all.
The experts say 15 to 20 minutes of exposure to sunlight, minus the sunscreen, should suffice for most people, but they warn that individuals have different tolerance levels for sunning. Those with dark skin may need to be outside an hour before their skin starts converting sunlight to vitamin D. In fact, black children were more likely to be vitamin D deficient than white kids in the study. On the other hand, fair-skinned kids with a family history of melanoma might endanger themselves getting even 20 minutes of direct sun daily.
And by the way, the advisability of slathering on sunscreen is debatable from another standpoint — the chemicals in the stuff may include carcinogens and estrogenic chemicals. Some sources believe that sunscreen causes as much cancer as it prevents. The Environmental Working Group found that four out of five of all the sunscreens they tested didn’t meet minimum requirements for either safety or effectiveness. So it pays to choose your product wisely, using the Cosmetics Database for guidance.
The bottom line is to make sure your kids worship the sun without worshipping sunscreen, at least for a few minutes each day, according to their skin type. Early morning and late afternoon provide the maximum benefit with minimal skin damage. During these hours, sunscreen is barely necessary. Midday, on the other hand, is best avoided. Covering up and wearing a hat (brim forward, all you would be gangstas) is a better alternative than sunscreen, of course. In any case, get your kids unglued from the screen and out the door. In northern climates or situations where getting good sun just isn’t possible, make sure your kids supplement with at least 400 international units of vitamin D daily. And by the way, what’s good for the gosling is good for the goose and gander. For adults, up to 2000 units of supplemented vitamin D a day is recommended.