Boost Vitamin D level to avoid severe COVID-19, says new study in UAE

Stock Vitamin D tablet
The health authorities have urges residents in the UAE to boost Vitamin D levels to fight against COVID-19 pandemic. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Abu Dhabi: A study of 522 COVID-19 patients in the UAE has found a strong relation between Vitamin D deficiency and severe COVID-19 infection.

Since more than 70 per cent of the UAE population is known to be Vitamin D deficient, the health authorities have urges residents to boost Vitamin D levels.

The study was conducted by Dr Habiba Al Safar at the Khalifa University’s Centre for Biotechnology, and Dr Fatme Al Anouti, associate professor of Clinical Biochemistry at Zayed University.

Adult patients

It found that 59 per cent of surveyed COVID-19 patients with Vitamin D deficiency suffered more severe COVID-19 symptoms. The patients were all aged 18 years and older.

The Department of Health — Abu Dhabi (DoH) has therefore urged community members to ensure that they take action against COVID-19 deficiency.

International findings

The Emirati study’s findings are in keeping with international findings. In fact, experts vouched for the protective effect of the sunshine vitamin at the Abu Dhabi Annual International Conference on Vitamin D Deficiency and Human Health held in September 2020. As Gulf News reported at the time, the experts believed that sufficient Vitamin D levels help prevent severe autoimmune responses like the cytokine storm seen in some patients.

“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.

Dr White added that studies would show in a few months, when the result of COVID-19 clinical trials were in, that sufficient Vitamin D helps suppress COVID-19 infections severity. The study conducted in Abu Dhabi is confirmation of Dr White’s beliefs.

Advice from researchers

Dr Al Anouti, one of the study’s researchers, has also supplied tips on how to ensure Vitamin D sufficiency. “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, especially if you have risk factors for being deficient,” she told Gulf News.

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 gummites, 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.