Poppy Brett thought she would just have to accept that her son Jago didn’t have the energy to keep up with his friends, didn’t like playing football and always seemed tired.
Their GP could find nothing wrong with him: he slept 12 hours a night and had a healthy diet. It never occurred to his mother that the factor 25 sun cream she slathered on him in the summer might be to blame for his exhaustion.
But a year ago a blood test revealed that Jago, 11, was severely deficient in vitamin D — vital for maintaining healthy bones and a well-functioning nervous system. Our bodies must have direct sunlight to produce it.
Twelve months on, after taking supplements and having more exposure to the sun, Jago is a different boy. The lethargy has gone — he loves playing in the park with his friends.
Gone, too, are the pains in his legs that would often cause him to wake in the night in agony. They had been dismissed as growing pains.
‘I never thought in a million years that his tiredness could be down to a lack of sun,’ says Poppy, 41, a charity fundraiser from Bristol. ‘When camping in Cornwall, I’d cover Jago in sunscreen the moment the sun came out.’
Poppy first went to the GP about Jago’s leg pains when he was seven, but the doctor simply showed him some stretching exercises. When this failed to have any effect, she went back to the GP twice, but the only suggestion was that he should get more sleep.
‘It was utterly frustrating trying to get anyone to take me seriously,’ says Poppy. ‘Jago looked tired all the time, but they just told me to put him to bed earlier, which was crazy as he was sleeping 12 hours a night.
‘I suggested it might be related to his dust-mite allergy, so they suggested I vacuum the house more!’
In February last year, Jago burst into tears at the side of a swimming pool because he felt so unwell. Poppy marched back to the GP and demanded a blood test.
‘I said: ‘‘Look, there must be something wrong with him. Please can you test his blood?’’ It seemed a good place to start.’ And she was right.
The results showed Jago’s vitamin D level was a quarter of what it should have been — this result was so worrying that the GP arranged for his legs to be X-rayed to check he didn’t have the bone-softening disease, rickets. Fortunately, he didn’t.
Vitamin D plays a vital role in promoting the absorption of calcium into the gut, which is key for maintaining healthy bones and normal muscle and nerve activity.
It is measured by its concentration in the blood. A count of 70 to 150 means there is a good store of it. At 50 to 70, levels are insufficient; at 50 they are deficient; and at less than 25 severely deficient. Jago’s count was just 24.
Severe deficiency can cause rickets, convulsions and heart failure in young children and adolescents, says Dr Jeremy Allgrove, consultant paediatric endocrinologist at Barts and the London Children’s Hospital. He is one of Britain’s leading experts on vitamin D deficiency.
Dr Allgrove says there is increasing evidence to show that vitamin D has an important effect on children’s immune systems, protecting against TB, asthma and other viral infections.
In adults, a deficiency may cause an increased incidence of diabetes, coronary heart disease and some forms of cancer.
Despite its importance for our health, up to half of those with white, northern European skin and up to 90 per cent of Britons with Asian or Afro-Caribbean backgrounds may be deficient, mainly because we can’t make it from sunshine in this country between October and March. The darker your skin, the harder it is to make.
But there are still no formal government guidelines on the amount children should have.
‘Unspecific’ symptoms of deficiency include lethargy, leg pain, eating issues and mood swings, but these are often missed by GPs.
Every parent has had it drummed into them to apply high-factor sun screen on their children’s delicate skin in the spring and summer, but Dr Allgrove says this is worsening the problem of vitamin D deficiency.
‘This is the one vitamin you can’t get in adequate quantities from your diet,’ he says.
‘The problem is that even low-factor sunscreens will absorb all the ultraviolet light you are exposed to that you need to make vitamin D.
‘I am not suggesting that sunscreen shouldn’t be used. But in my view its use has gone too far.’
He recommends allowing a small amount of sun exposure — apply sun cream after 15 minutes in the sunshine for pale-skinned children and up to an hour for darker-skinned children.
Lucia Decermic, 40, from West London, is another mother whose child’s vitamin D deficiency were not recognised by her GP.
She had to dose her five-year-old daughter Senka with Calpol three times a week to cope with her leg pain. Senka also had eating problems, often managing only a mouthful of cereal for breakfast.
Like Poppy, Lucia feels let down by her GP because she had to take matters into her own hands. When a locum suggested Senka had her legs X-rayed at Hammersmith Hospital, Lucia instead queued up for a blood test.
She had heard about another child with vitamin D deficiency and wondered if this might be the case with Senka.
She was right. Senka was significantly deficient in vitamin D, with a level of 49. ‘It seems ludicrous that GPs are still not fully informed about something as simple as vitamin D deficiency,’ says Lucia, who runs her own events management business.
‘It’s unacceptable to be told your daughter has growing pains with no offer of a solution. I had to resort to medicating her with painkillers and then sit helplessly listening to her scream until the pain subsided.
‘How many parents are going through this?’
Senka has been taking a vitamin D supplement for just three weeks. Remarkably, her leg pain levels have subsided and she is eating well.
Dr Allgrove says eating problems are a common symptom of vitamin D deficiency, probably because children at such a low ebb can’t face food.
He says GPs are beginning to wake up to vitamin D deficiency. Guidelines about testing and medication have recently been issued to surgeries by Barts and the Royal London Hospital. Millie Barrett of Key Nutrition, a London-based clinical nutrition consultancy, says she is seeing an increased awareness of the issue.
‘Every patient whose vitamin D status I have tested has been insufficient or deficient. These are not isolated cases,’ she says.
She advises mothers to ask their GP for a blood test or see a registered nutritional therapist, who will arrange a test for £40.
‘If one member of your family has been diagnosed with low or insufficient levels of vitamin D, it is likely the rest of the family will also be deficient because they are subject to the same influences.’
Tested or not, in Dr Allgrove’s view everyone should take vitamin D supplements.
He ADVISES 400 ius (international units in which vitamin D is measured) a day for babies, 1,000 ius a day for children and adolescents, and 1,000 to 2000 ius a day for adults.
Vitamin D supplements are vital for women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, and those who cover up for religious reasons.
Dr Allgrove says it is almost impossible to take too much. When deficiency is detected, the doses prescribed are far higher: 3,000 ius for infants; 6,000 ius for children aged six months to 12 years; and 6,000 to 10,000 ius for adolescents and adults.
Treating Jago’s vitamin D deficiency has had a transforming effect on him, says Poppy.
‘Before, when we went to the park I felt as if I was pulling a tired boy along behind me who didn’t want to be there.
‘For years I just thought my son was just not a child who was full of energy and life. How wrong I was. He’s got so much buzz about him now. He is a new boy.’
A 12-year-old girl with vitamin D deficiency has been told that her condition could have been caused by using strong sun cream.
Tyler Attrill used factor 50 cream which, according to her consultant, could have deprived her of the essential vitamin and caused the bone disease rickets.
BBC Breakfast’s resident GP Rosemary Leonard gave her advice for sun exposure.
By Andrew Schneider
WASHINGTON (May 24) — Almost half of the 500 most popular sunscreen products may actually increase the speed at which malignant cells develop and spread skin cancer because they contain vitamin A or its derivatives, according to an evaluation of those products released today.
AOL News also has learned through documents and interviews that the Food and Drug Administration has known of the potential danger for as long as a decade without alerting the public, which the FDA denies.
The study was released with Memorial Day weekend approaching. Store shelves throughout the country are already crammed with tubes, jars, bottles and spray cans of sunscreen.
The white goop, creams and ointments might prevent sunburn. But don’t count on them to keep the ultraviolet light from destroying your skin cells and causing tumors and lesions, according to researchers at Environmental Working Group.
In their annual report to consumers on sunscreen, they say that only 39 of the 500 products they examined were considered safe and effective to use.
The report cites these problems with bogus sun protection factor (SPF) numbers:
- The use of the hormone-disrupting chemical oxybenzone, which penetrates the skin and enters the bloodstream.
- Overstated claims about performance.
- The lack of needed regulations and oversight by the Food and Drug Administration.
But the most alarming disclosure in this year’s report is the finding that vitamin A and its derivatives, retinol and retinyl palmitate, may speed up the cancer that sunscreen is used to prevent.
A dangerous additive
The industry includes vitamin A in its sunscreen formulations because it is an anti-oxidant that slows skin aging.
But the EWG researchers found the initial findings of an FDA study of vitamin A’s photocarcinogenic properties, meaning the possibility that it results in cancerous tumors when used on skin exposed to sunlight.
“In that yearlong study, tumors and lesions developed up to 21 percent faster in lab animals coated in a vitamin A-laced cream than animals treated with a vitamin-free cream,” the report said.
The conclusion came from EWG’s analysis of initial findings released last fall by the FDA and the National Toxicology Program, the federal government’s principle evaluator of substances that raise public health concerns.
EWG’s conclusions were subsequently scrutinized by outside toxicologists.
Based on the strength of the findings by FDA’s own scientists, many in the public health community say they can’t believe nor understand why the agency hasn’t already notified the public of the possible danger.
“There was enough evidence 10 years ago for FDA to caution consumers against the use of vitamin A in sunscreens,” Jane Houlihan, EWG’s senior vice president for research, told AOL News.
“FDA launched this one-year study, completed their research and now 10 years later, they say nothing about it, just silence.”
On Friday, the FDA said the allegations are not true.
“We have thoroughly checked and are not aware of any studies,” an FDA spokesperson told AOL News. She said she checked with bosses throughout the agency and found no one who knew of the vitamin A sunscreen research being done by or on behalf of the agency.
But documents from the FDA and the National Toxicology Program showed that the agency had done the research.
“Retinyl palmitate was selected by (FDA’s) Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition for photo-toxicity and photocarcinogenicity testing based on the increasingly widespread use of this compound in cosmetic retail products for use on sun-exposed skin,” said an October 2000 report by the National Toxicology Program.
FDA’s own website said the animal studies were done at its National Center for Toxicological Research in Jefferson, Ark.
By Jed Shlackman
As summertime approaches and residents and visitors flock to South Florida beaches and swimming spots there are more hazards present than oil slicks, alligators, or sharks in the water. Naturally, the risk of sunburn increases during summer months. This leads many to cover their exposed skin with various sunscreen products, believing that these protect the skin from harm. However, research publicized by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has shown that most sunscreens may present more harm than benefit. Skin cancer rates continue to rise and sunblocks fail to prevent long-term damage from the UV light exposure associated with skin cancers. Furthermore, many sunscreens contain hormone disruptors and Vitamin A derivatives that can foster skin cancers when applied topically and exposed to the sun. The Food And Drug Administration’s research has exposed the danger of Vitamin A compounds in sunscreens yet the agency failed to alert the public to this hazard or take action against the use of these compounds in sunscreens. The FDA has acknowledged that SPF factors reported by sunblock makers are often misleading, yet the manufacturers continue to include these misleading numbers on their products.
In the EWG’s annual report on sunscreens only 39 of 500 products tested were deemed safe and effective for consumers to use. None of the sunscreens widely sold in the USA are considered ideal by the EWG, as an ideal sunscreen would have to completely block harmful UV wavelengths, remain effective on the skin for several hours, and not break down into harmful chemicals when exposed to sunlight or other elements. In light of these findings consumers may want to consider traditional methods of sun protection – clothing, hats, umbrellas, natural shade, and avoiding exposure during mid-day hours. Good nutrition and anti-oxidant supplementation are also helpful in preventing and repairing damage caused by excessive sun exposure. Exposure to sunlight is healthy in moderation, so we can learn to manage our sun exposure to gain the benefits of sunlight (such as Vitamin D) while minimizing the hazards of being exposed for too long. So far, efforts to use chemicals on the skin to prevent sun damage seem to have backfired, as they’ve merely suppressed nature’s warning to us that we’ve been in the sun too long, offering a false sense of protection.
By Graham Pembrey
Summer is on the horizon and it is only natural that many of us will be reaching for the sun cream, in an attempt to keep our pale British skin from burning in the heat. One thing that many of us will not realise as we do so, however, is that while sun lotion blocks out harmful rays from the sun, it also prevents our bodies from absorbing an important vitamin that helps us to fight off obesity.
You see, while excessive sunshine might burn us, sunshine is also an important source of what is known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’ – vitamin D. Vitamin D has many benefits. It helps bone growth, prevents depression, and aids weight loss. When we lack in this vitamin, our bodies can suffer. As can our emotions – which is one of the major reasons why seasonal affective disorder, commonly known as SAD, affects many people in the cold season, giving them the ‘winter blues’.
There is some good news for people who want to tan without burning, but also want to avoid obesity; vitamin D can be found in certain foods including oily fish, eggs and dairy products. The vitamin can also be found in margarines, and in cod and liver oil. By eating plenty of these foods, it may be possible to make up for some lack of exposure to sunlight. Still, you should try to get at least 10 to 20 minutes of sunlight most days.
By Rod Chaytor
Helen’s shock at diagnosis
A health conscious nurse has been diagnosed with rickets after covering herself for years with factor 50 sun block.
Helen Smith, 38, suffered excruciating joint pain and extreme tiredness for almost a decade before doctors realised what was wrong with her.
The mum-of-two had been blocking out the sun’s rays – and with it the crucial vitamin D they deliver to maintain healthy bones.
This led to an adult form of rickets – a condition causing bones to become soft and weak normally linked to the child victims of famine.
Fair-skinned Helen said: “I was absolutely staggered when I found the cause of all this had been because I was being too responsible in the sun.”
She started to feel ill about 10 years ago, around the time she began applying the sun cream.
Helen added: “I’d get really bad lower back pain which spread to my hips and shoulders. I’d be in terrible pain and unbelievably tired. Some days I couldn’t get out of bed.
“If I did make it to my job as a practice nurse I wanted to fall asleep as soon as I got home. My GP referred me to a physiotherapist, thinking I had some muscular problem. But it didn’t help.
“I also saw a gastroenterologist and rheumatologist, but all to no avail. And even though I’m a nurse myself I just didn’t know what it could be.”
Helen, who is married to 40-year-old handyman Dean, was finally sent for blood tests last year after a new doctor at her practice suspected she may be suffering from a vitamin D deficiency.
She said: “She asked me about my sunbathing habits and when I explained that I was always extremely careful and would put factor 50 on my face or exposed skin at the first sign of sunshine, she felt certain this was behind my problem.”
Helen, from Birmingham, was found to have dangerously low levels of vitamin D and diagnosed with a form of rickets known as osteomalacia. She was put on a high dose of vitamin D tablets and says that, almost a year later, she is starting to feel better.
Helen added: “I thought I was being responsible by putting on sunscreen. I’d never even heard of vitamin deficiency and couldn’t believe I’d done this to myself.
“Now I try and get my 30 minutes of sunlight as soon as the sun comes out, after which I put on factor 15 sunscreen. I don’t want to be that ill again.”
RAYS ARE CRUCIAL
Vitamin D is an essential nutrient for healthy bones and is almost wholly provided through the chemical reaction which occurs when ultraviolet rays from the sun directly hit the skin.
Professor John Monson, of the Endocrinology Centre at the London Clinic, said: “Understandably people are concerned about having too much sun because of the dangers of skin cancer.
“But there is a lot of surface area on the face and forearms and that is all the exposure you need for the body to make vitamin D.”
He added: “Unfortunately we are seeing more instances of insufficiency of vitamin D because people are not spending enough time outdoors.”