Eating Sunshine

A new paper published in the Lancet highlights the importance of Vitamin D especially for pregnant women

New Media Fellows 2013

By Anindita Sengupta

July 28, 2013

Also published at Bangalore Mirror

There’s a song in the movie Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola whose lyrics I found fascinating—“Oye boy, oye boy Charlie,” it goes, “meri vitamin ki goli”. Who is Charlie? I thought. And almost immediately, what an unusual and delightful analogy! You know — the lover as a vitamin pill? Is this evidence that we’re more aware than ever about the goodness of vitamins? After all, the song is set in a rural village where presumably, hopefully, government schemes are plying pregnant women and new moms with all that good stuff. 

But let me not run away, hand in hand with my optimism. Awareness comes in many shades and “vitamin ki goli” is a bit generic, isn’t it? I mean, not all vitamins can be consumed so easily and oranges are not the only fruits that deliver.

It makes sense to help babies shore up on vitamin D while in the womb.

The Lancet Series on Maternal and Child Nutrition, published this month in The Lancet, has a paper that focuses on maternal and child undernutrition in low-income and middle-income countries. One of the things it points out is the importance of vitamin D for pregnant women. “Vitamin D has an essential role in fetal development, ensuring fetal supply of calcium for bone development, enabling immunological adaptation required to maintain normal pregnancy, preventing miscarriage, and promoting normal brain development.” Cut through all the big words and what you have is something that does rather essential things. Vitamin D deficiency, especially in early pregnancy, can lead to pre-eclampsia, premature babies or low birth weight.

Another recent study conducted at London’s Kingston University, found that 56 per cent of a newborn baby’s supply of vitamin D comes directly from its mother. Earlier, this was thought to be just 19 per cent. The study, published in Nutrition Journal, focuses attention on this factor which has so far been given little importance. Because, look at what newborns can suffer if they don’t get enough vitamin D: low birth weight, neonatal rickets, neonatal hypocalcaemia, asthma and/or type 1 diabetes. Vitamin D deficiency can also affect neurodevelopment and immune system in the baby and it can become evident after years, according to an article by Manila Kaushal and Navneet Magon published in the Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism.

It makes sense that we should be helping babies shore up on D while in the womb. Here’s why this is unlikely to happen easily. Most of us are deficient in vitamin D. According to a news report in May, 80 per cent of healthy Indians have less than normal levels of Vitamin D.

We live stressful lives. We commute. We rage at the traffic. Achy bones, back pains and fatigue are frequently attributed to these factors. In fact, they could be a result of vitamin D deficiency. It’s a simple test to take and one worth asking the doctor about if you suffer from aches and pains. We’re spending more time indoors or in air-conditioned cars, away from direct sunlight which is the source of vitamin D3. D2 is found in egg yolk, mushrooms, and certain types of fish. Not everybody eats these foods. Plus, many people are unaware of the symptoms. I know I was until diagnosed with a severe deficiency in the fifth month of my pregnancy.

It took two doctors and several complaints about fatigue before I was put on supplements. A well-known gynaecologist in Bangalore didn’t bother to check for vitamin D as a precaution. She works for one of the best hospitals in the city. Go figure. By the time I was diagnosed of this and iron deficiency, I could barely get out of bed. I put that down to pregnancy. This happens to a lot of first-timers. They simply don’t know what to expect and pregnancy is supposed to be tough. You’re supposed to put a brave face on it, right? Wrong. Run to the doctor, often, and with as many complaints as you feel like.

Kaushal and Magon also point out that the topic has been “poorly studied” so we still don’t know how much vitamin D is required during pregnancy, or even generally. At present, vitamin D supplementation is not a part of antenatal care programmes in India. It’s up to us to make sure that family and friends, especially pregnant women, are getting enough of it.

Anindita Sengupta is reporting on reproductive health in India as a New Media Fellow with the International Reporting Project (IRP).