Dubbed the “sunshine vitamin,” vitamin D is produced when the skin is exposed to direct sunlight.
Paradoxically, despite the intense sunshine in the Middle East and North Africa, deficiencies in the vitamin are widespread among the population.
According to research published in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism, “the Middle East and North African regions have a very high rate of vitamin D deficiency, which reaches 81 percent among various age groups.”
Reasons for this include cultural practices, climate, genetic disposition and skin color.
Cultural forms of dressing, which include covering major parts of the body, also may affect the skin’s absorption of sunlight, especially for women.
Another reason is the region’s high temperatures, which limit time outdoors for many people.
Researchers at the Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal said the deficiency can also be attributed to “a racial difference in vitamin D concentration or a genetic predisposition to vitamin D deficiency among people of Saudi Arabia.”
Skin color also affects the skin’s ability to synthesize sunlight into vitamin D.
A paper published in 2011 by Floor Christie of the University of Sunderland and Linda Mason of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine found that women with darker complexions require two hours of sun exposure to produce the same amount of vitamin D that a woman with lighter complexion can produce in 12 minutes.
“Creating areas where women, particularly those of lower socioeconomic status, can enjoy sun exposure, as well as fortifying more foods, would go some way toward tackling this problem,” they wrote.
Low levels of vitamin D have been linked to a number of illnesses, including rickets and osteomalacia, which weaken bone tissue.
Severe cases of rickets may result in stunted growth and skeletal deformities in children.
Recent studies show that vitamin D deficiency is also linked to various types of cancer, some coronary heart diseases, and type 1 and 2 diabetes. It is also correlated to ailments such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, hypertension and Alzheimer’s disease.
Moreover, research has also suggested a link between vitamin D deficiency and some mental health problems, including depression.
Most doctors recommend vitamin D supplements since exposure to sunlight and food intake may not always be sufficient to meet the required dose.