When covering up blocks the sun

Could conservative styles of dress be causing vitamin D deficiences?

Published June 26, 2007 6:15PM (EDT)

I've heard and read plenty of discussions about conservative religious dress (see a Broadsheet post about burkinis as an example). But never this one: A study from the June 2007 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, written about here by Reuters, found that dressing conservatively can cause deficiencies in vitamin D.

Researchers from the United Arab Emirates University examined the vitamin D levels of 178 women, 90 of whom were breast-feeding and 88 of whom had never given birth. Many of the women "dressed to cover their whole bodies, including their hands and faces, while outside of their homes" -- a significant fact because sunlight (in the form of U.V. rays) is the body's main natural source of vitamin D. The initial result? The researchers found that all but two of the women (one from each group) were deficient in vitamin D.

Vitamin D is important because it "protects against bone and muscle problems and may reduce risks of cancer, high blood pressure and immune system diseases," according to this blurb from Wired News. It's also particularly important while breast-feeding. Milk fortification has helped reduce vitamin D deficiencies in America, but to give you an idea of how significant the sun is, according to this article from the National Institutes of Health, "sunlight exposure from November through February in Boston is insufficient to produce significant vitamin D synthesis in the skin. Complete cloud cover halves the energy of UV rays and shade reduces it by 60%." It's not surprising, then, that covering your entire body every time you go outside does not do good things for your ability to synthesize vitamin D.

To counteract the women's deficiencies, the researchers gave them either daily or monthly supplements of vitamin D2, which is the only high-dose form of the vitamin available in the UAE. After three months, the level of vitamin D in the women's blood had risen, but only 21 out of the 71 women who finished the three-month study had reached the recommended blood levels.

The study concluded that daily and monthly supplements were both effective, though they might have to be at higher doses than the ones given in the study. (Does anyone out there know whether vitamin-D-fortified milk is sold in the UAE? That seems like a good idea.) Not to provoke yet another raging debate on Muslim dress, but it does make me wonder -- for Islam and all other religions and cultures that require women to cover their entire bodies -- whether a compromise could be reached that would accommodate religious beliefs, personal freedom and now, it turns out, nutrition. Brandon Keim, blogger for Wired News, puts it a bit more bluntly. "While the researchers recommend vitamin supplements for women who follow such a severe sartorial regime," he writes, "I can think of a few other approaches to the problem."

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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