The 2013-2014 beijingkids Health Guide is the latest resource for Beijing families dedicated to providing information on family health care, maternity, eating and breathing safety, mental health, emergency care and traditional Chinese Medicine. Articles from the guide will be featured twice a week on our website. Find the full version here.
One of the first things questions my patients ask me is how the environment might affect their overall health, particularly when it comes to food safety and pollution. Last winter, when the air quality was at its worst, many of my patients complained of respiratory issues and increased rates of illness, which came as no a surprise. But what I was surprised to find out were the secondary effects of this pollution – because of the air pollution I’ve noticed a sharp increase in the number of expat children with vitamin D deficiency.
What is vitamin D?
Vitamin D is often called the “Sunshine Vitamin” because our primary source is from the sun, which anyone who has been in Beijing over the last six months will tell you can be a rare sight in this city. In recent years more and more is being understood about the importance of this vitamin and the effects of not getting enough.
In Beijing the air pollution acts as a natural umbrella, hiding us from the sunlight, thus making vitamin D deficiency a real problem, especially for children.
Vitamin D is essential in developing bodies as it is required for the body to absorb calcium and phosphorous and use it in the formation of bones. While most people know that milk is key for healthy bones and teeth, what they do not know is that without vitamin D, the calcium and phosphorous that is retained will be flushed out of one’s system.
Should I worry?
While data on vitamin D deficiency for expat children in Beijing is not readily available, a recent study by the Medical College of Georgia has found that this situation is prevalent even in developed countries like the U.S. According to the study of 559 14 to 18-year-olds researchers found that 56.4% had insufficient levels with 28.8% classed as deficient.
It is surprising to think that potentially over a quarter of teens are not getting the vitamins that they need in order to develop into healthy adults.
What happens if we do not get enough?
Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to a number of disorders of not only the bones and skeletal structure but also weight and emotional state.
The most commonly associated result of vitamin D deficiency is rickets, a condition where bones become soft, fragile and often malformed. This is considered a serious issue in children and should be screened for and addressed quickly.
Bone Breaks and Pain
Even though a child/teens’ bones may be fully formed, insufficient vitamin D still leads to overall weakness in the skeletal structure making them prone to fractures and breaks. Additionally, aches and pains caused by simple activities are common in people with vitamin D deficiency.
Studies done by John Hopkins University in the U.S have found that children with vitamin D deficiency are five times more likely to be obese than other children. It is unknown what causes this link but it is important to ensure that a child’s diet is balanced, quantity aside.
Fatigue and Depression
Depression and teenagers: This is not a novel concept and may be just be a phase, but symptoms can be exacerbated by not getting enough of the “sunshine vitamin.” In Beijing where the sun is often scarce, it is important to take advantage of days where the heavens open and have your child go outside and make the most of it.
What can I do?
While the sun is the most common source, vitamin D can also be obtained naturally through certain types of oily fish such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel, beef liver and eggs. Additionally, many low fat yogurts have added this vitamin artificially.
If you are concerned that your child may be suffering from vitamin D deficiency, you may choose to have them screened. An orthopedic specialist will be able to advise you on the best cause of action in this case.
Dr Nizar al Salahat is the Medical Director and Chief OrthopedicTrauma surgeon at Puhua International Hospital – Shuangjing
This article originally appeared on page 44-45 of the beijingkids Health Guide.
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Photo by Mitchell Pe Masilun