IF governments want to save money, and parents want to prevent illnesses in their children, they must ensure they are getting enough Vitamin D. That's according to Professor Michael Holick, one of the world's leading authorities on the 'sunshine vitamin'. Vitamin D deficiency is a health issue affecting nearly every country in the world, he says.
Rickets is now being seen again in hospitals, mainly because paediatricians and parents are unaware that vitamin D is so very important.
"But, slowly, health authorities are beginning to realise that vitamin D deficiency is a major issue for both children and adults, and that improving our vitamin D status can improve our overall health and welfare and reduce healthcare costs across the board," he adds.
Vitamin D awareness is growing as it becomes increasingly recognised that every organ and cell in the body has a vitamin D receptor or responds to vitamin D.
A major study carried out in the US, the Framingham Heart Study, has shown that if you are vitamin D deficient you have a 50pc higher risk of having a heart attack, and if you have that heart attack when you're vitamin D deficient, you have a 100pc higher risk of dying from it.
"Another recent paper came out showing it can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and cognitive dysfunction," says Holick.
"In children we think it's very important not only for bone health but for reducing the risk of getting Type I diabetes later in life, and also multiple sclerosis."
He points to yet another study, which showed that improving your vitamin D and calcium status can reduce your risk of Type II diabetes by as much as 33pc.
"Vitamin D has been the vitamin of the decade, and possibly the century. There have been over 30,000 publications on vitamin D and many of its health benefits over the past 10 years. The reason is that people are continuing to find that improving your vitamin D status has a marked effect on many, many chronic illnesses, and even acute illnesses like the flu."
Even before a child is born it can be affected by low vitamin D levels. Holick was part of a study that showed that at the time of giving birth 76pc of mothers in the US and 81pc of newborns are vitamin D deficient.
"It increases the risk of preeclampsia because vitamin D plays a critical role in muscle function. A woman who is vitamin D deficient is more likely to require a Caesarean section," says he says.
Another study found that giving women in the range of 4000 units of vitamin D a day, or 100mcg, throughout pregnancy, had no toxic effect.
Often referred to as the sunshine vitamin, vitamin D can be absorbed through sunlight and our diet.
With a huge emphasis being placed - rightly - on skin protection and the harmful effects of the sun, more people are wearing sunscreen, thereby reducing the skin's ability to make vitamin D by 98pc.
"You may think that Ireland is unique [for vitamin D deficiency) but it is actually a worldwide problem. In Australia about 40pc of the population is deficient. That's about the same as Ireland. So even in Australia they are now recommending a sun break at lunch, where people can go out for five, 10, 15 minutes of sun exposure."
However, that sun exposure should be to all parts of the body, excluding the face, which is difficult to get in Ireland as we only make Vitamin D from April to September.
Milk is a good source of vitamin D, says Holick.
"Super milk - milk fortified with vitamin D - has 5mcg of vitamin D, which the HSE recommends children have. Drinking 250ml of super milk will not only give them enough vitamin D but it will also give them calcium, which is equally important for bones."
Other foods also fortified with vitamin D include cereals and bread, while wild salmon and oily fish are good natural sources. An argument has been put forward that our water supply should be fortified with vitamin D, similar to how it is with fluoride.
Holick says it may not be possible to put it in water, but argues that it should be added to more foods.
Food fortification with vitamin D was the norm back in the early part of the 20th century, with items such as custard, shaving cream and cereals all fortified to improve bone health.
However, in the 1950s, vitamin D intoxication was blamed for heart problems in children, and fortification was banned in the UK, with many other countries around the western world following suit.
"The infants had heart problems and elevated calcium levels, and the experts concluded this must be due to vitamin D intoxication, even though they had no evidence for it. It turns out that it was probably due to a genetic disorder called Williams Syndrome," says Holick.
"Only recently they're allowing milk to be fortified with vitamin D, but for the most part vitamin D is still very tightly regulated all because of that vitamin D toxic outbreak in the 1950s that turned out not to be vitamin D at all," he adds.
Holick recommends that children drink two to three glasses of milk a day.
He has been involved in the creation of an app that allows people to see if they are making enough vitamin D. If you're worried about your vitamin D levels, download the app on android or Apple.
Go to dminder.info for more details.