Although countless tourists flock to sun-swept Middle-Eastern countries like the UAE to enjoy vacations on its numerous beaches, many of their residents are not being exposed to sufficient levels of sunlight - a vital source of Vitamin D.
Despite abundant sunlight year-round, residents in countries like the United Arab Emirates suffer from an acute Vitamin D deficiency, as they spend much of their summer days indoors pacing the endless avenues of the region’s shopping malls.
Vitamin D is an essential vitamin that balances bone calcium levels which is essential to the well-being and general strength of the human skeleton.
According to the Dubai Health Authority, “studies show that 78 percent of the UAE population have Vitamin D deficiency (highly prevalent in Emirati women). This Vitamin D deficiency is mostly due to limited sun exposure.”
With summer fast approaching, temperatures will soar to well in excess of 40C (104F) in GCC countries and across other parts of the Middle East.
The extreme summer heat can cause illnesses that affect everyone - particularly children, elderly and vulnerable people.
Illnesses caused by prolonged sun exposure include heatstroke, which may lead to a rise in body temperature to more than 41C in the minutes leading to death in extreme cases.
Symptoms of heat stroke include skin dryness, dizziness and a rapid heart rate. Heat stroke is especially common among those who spend long periods of time outdoors especially during the hottest months of the year.
Members of the Western military serving in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last two decades regularly suffered from heat stroke and other related illness during the peak of summer, with some even dying in extreme cases.
Likewise as a result of their efforts to shade from the extreme heat produced by the sun, residents of Middle Eastern countries find themselves being inadvertently exposed to the health issues associated with Vitamin D deficiency.
Racha Adib, a Dubai-based nutritionist and health expert told Al Arabiya News, “Vitamin D is widely known for promoting calcium absorption which is essential for strong bones. If you don’t meet your Vitamin D needs you’re putting yourself at risk of bone fractures and osteoporosis in the future. But there’s more to Vitamin D than most people think.”
Modern lifestyles, dietary changes, alcohol consumption and smoking decrease the body’s ability to process nutrients and so lead to decreased Vitamin D levels among nationals from the region’s hotter countries and expatriates alike.
Such problems are relatively new to the region - the Gulf countries were largely populated by transient communities that spent much of their time outside. It was a stark contrast to the lifestyle of modern villa and apartment dwellers of today, who move around in air conditioned vehicles to the relative comfort of indoor working environments, shopping malls and restaurants.
“The Bedouin lifestyle was mainly outdoors, allowing for plenty of exposure to the sun which is necessary for the manufacture and absorption of Vitamin D in the body. People also used to drink camel milk every day, providing them with a rich source of calcium,” Dr Abdul Rehim al Suhaili, head of the nuclear medicine department at Dubai Hospital, told Khaleej Times.
Women are particularly at risk from Vitamin D deficiency and its related issues, including “the silent thief”; osteoporosis - a bone disease that causes the deterioration of tissue and leads to low bone mass causing a higher risk of fractures.
Dubai-based nutritionist and health promoter, Hala Barghout told Dubai-based Arabian Business, “studies from the third international conference on Vitamin D deficiency also showed 78 percent of the UAE population have Vitamin D deficiency, with the issue highly prevalent in Emirati women.”
She said she received many patients suffering from extreme Vitamin D deficiency in the UAE, the report added.
“They are mostly female since in the UAE the majority of Arab women are covered,” Barghout said.
According to the International Osteoporosis Foundation, more than 90 percent of UAE citizens suffer from Vitamin D deficiency, the majority being women.
In order to prevent a Vitamin D deficiency in one of the world’s sunniest regions, there are several recommended solutions.
Adib told Al Arabiya news, “the solution is to try to increase your consumption of Vitamin D containing foods, attaining at least 5 min of sun exposure per day, and reaching out for supplements if your physician recommends it.”
Some exposure to early morning sun is recommended by health professionals because of the cooler temperatures.
Certain foods also provide a source of the much needed vitamin. But food alone does not provide enough Vitamin D to meet the body’s overall health needs according to health experts.
Adib agrees and said "the human Vitamin D system begins in the skin not the mouth." She mentioned however some natural food sources of Vitamin D: “These include fatty fish such as salmon and tuna as well as egg yolk and beef liver. Other sources including fortified foods such as cereal, milk, and orange juice."
(Additional reporting by Tameem Shayya)