A different kind of double D

Is your breast milk vitamin D deficient?

Published August 26, 2008 6:24PM (EDT)

While sitting in my dermatologist's office a few weeks ago waiting to have a routine skin screening, I noticed a bunch of articles on the wall about tests for vitamin D deficiencies. When I asked my doctor about it, she told me that when she and her staff got tested last year, nearly all of them had low levels of vitamin D. That's a problem because new research suggests that in addition to being critical in allowing the body to absorb calcium and build bone, vitamin D may be important in preventing chronic illnesses like diabetes and autoimmune diseases. (I touched on the subject of vitamin D deficiencies among conservatively dressed women in the United Arab Emirates in a Broadsheet post last year.)

But today's New York Times has a piece on vitamin D deficiencies that hits closer to home. It's about a girl named Aleanie Remy-Marquez who was exclusively breast-fed for six or seven months, "ate little else even after that," and was diagnosed by her doctor as having vitamin D deficiency rickets -- that is, a softening of the bone that occurs when children don't get enough vitamin D. (Her parents noticed her legs were "curving in a bow shape" below the knees.) According to the Times, "Vitamin D is the one critical hormone breast milk often cannot provide enough of." And Aleanie is not alone. While extreme vitamin D deficiency is rare in the United States, a recent review of 14 studies published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine found that up to 78 percent of breast-fed babies that were not given supplements in wintertime were deficient.

As Broadsheet readers well know, breast-feeding is a touchy subject -- and the Times points out that doctors have known for over a century that kids who are exclusively breast-fed are at a higher risk of being vitamin D deficient, but "are reluctant to say anything that might discourage breast feeding." Unfortunately, now that an increasing number of mothers are themselves vitamin D deficient and kids are drinking more soda and juice than they are milk (and spending less time outdoors), the conditions are ripe for rickets to return -- and for other D-deficiency-related diseases to develop. Dark-skinned children are at a particular disadvantage, since they don't synthesize vitamin D through their skin as easily as their lighter-skinned peers.

"It sort of sneaks up on you," Craig Langman, professor of kidney disease and pediatrics at Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, told the Times about the effects of vitamin D deficiency. "So the worst scenario is the gas tank is empty and the car won't go -- you have rickets. But at very low levels of gas the car doesn't perform very well and you start having intermittent loss of power and that sort of thing; as a result you may not be forming enough bone during childhood."

Luckily for moms who are concerned about vitamin D but want to stick to breast-feeding, there's an easy solution: Supplement your breast milk by giving your child vitamin D drops or cod liver oil. As for adults, if you have the chance, it can't hurt to get your own vitamin D levels checked as well. I got mine measured by my dermatologist (warning: it requires a blood draw) and am happy to report that they came out OK -- perhaps my writer's cave isn't quite as dark as I think it is.

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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