Our sunless summers may be the cause of widespread vitamin D deficiency and a host of symptoms from lethargy to depression, writes Jane Gordon
For most of my adult life I have avoided doctors. They have been figures of fear for me since the day, aged eight, that I managed to convince my mother that I had such a bad stomach ache that I couldn't go to school. It wasn't the first occasion I had managed to pull off the "sick trick" – I was highly accomplished at faking symptoms that were not quite serious enough for a visit to the doctor's surgery but allowed me a precious day at home.
But on this particular occasion I was so convincing that my alarmed mother called the doctor and, worried I would be found out, I so overdid the moans of agony when he examined me that an ambulance was called and I was rushed into hospital for an emergency – but quite unnecessary – appendectomy. As a result of that traumatic experience I have only ever gone near a doctor in the intervening years when I was pregnant or one of my three children was ill (or had pulled a "sick trick" on me).
Ironically it was severe stomach pain that forced me, for the first time in nearly 10 years, to see a doctor in late January. There were other symptoms: lethargy, loss of appetite and – something I had never suffered from before – depression. The doctor, a locum, diagnosed a possible kidney infection, and put me on antibiotics. But in the following weeks I developed unrelated infections, took two more courses of antibiotics and even underwent hospital X-rays as the locum sought to find the cause of what he called my "symptoms of a low immune system".
When I googled "causes of a low immune system", I found a number of frightening results, such as TB, AIDS, cancer and hepatitis. Finally, a simple blood test taken from me by the practice nurse identified a far less serious but increasingly common problem.
I had a severe vitamin D deficiency that had suppressed my immune system and was the likely cause of my depression. The cure was a capsule of pharmaceutical strength vitamin D (20,000 IU) to be taken once a week for three months.
One day, about six weeks into my course, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling of well-being. I was not just cured, I was transformed.
But I was also angry. Why had I not known about the importance of vitamin D – which is essential for regulating the phosphate and calcium in our body so that our bones and teeth remain healthy? Worse, why didn't I know that the chief source of vitamin D comes from our skin's exposure to sunlight?
Had I been better informed, I would have recognised my own symptoms and self-treated my deficiency with a high-strength vitamin D supplement and would have saved myself from debilitating infections.
At the end of the three months, I had a final appointment at my local surgery. I saw one of the permanent partners. The doctor, who had also suffered the effects of low vitamin D, told me that she thought there might be a link between a deficiency and the "epidemic" of women patients suffering from depression. Instead of prescribing anti-depressants, she was beginning to think, women should be given vitamin D supplements. Vitamin D could be "nature's Prozac", she said.
Scientist and award-winning medical journalist Oliver Gillie, who has long campaigned on this subject, believes that everyone should be taking vitamin D supplements during the long winter months.
But there are other reasons why more and more women are suffering from low vitamin D counts. For a time, campaigns drummed into us that exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun can cause skin cancer. As a result, we stopped going out in the midday sun and started to smother our bodies in high-factor sun lotion, unaware that in doing so we are blocking the vital production of vitamin D. Women have also been subjected to anti-sunshine propaganda in the beauty pages of glossy magazines, warning of the danger of sun damage – the speeding up of the ageing process.
But staying out of the sun – unless you are fortified with vitamin D supplements – could be almost as damaging as ultraviolet radiation. Several A-list celebrities have recently revealed that they have been diagnosed with a vitamin D deficiency. Gwyneth Paltrow now lets the sun on her skin for a few minutes a day, because her low vitamin D level prevented her from absorbing calcium and has made her vulnerable to osteopenia, a thinning of the bones. And last year Kylie Minogue told me that she too had a problem.
"I was the person in the shade with sunscreen, but then I discovered I was vitamin-D-deficient so I actually get a little sun on my body, not on my face, and I am taking vitamin D supplements," she said.
Cancer charities' advice now puts the emphasis on avoiding sunburn and very strong sun rather than staying out of the sun all together.
However, Gillie is worried that vital research into the long-term effects of a vitamin D deficiency will never be carried out because it is not in the interest of the drug companies. He says: "No one can put a patent on vitamin D and sell it."
But now at least I – and you, dear readers – know the truth.