Vitamin D in pregnancy is back in the spotlight after the largest study of its kind has looked into whether low levels of the so-called “sunshine vitamin” increases the risk of developing Multiple Sclerosis (MS).
British researchers studied the effects of vitamin D in pregnancy among 15,000 MS sufferers, concentrating on the months in which the mothers were pregnant.
The results show that those babies born during October and November had a 5–10% lower risk of developing MS, where mothers had been exposed to sunlight during their pregnancy over the spring and summer. For those babies born in April and May (with mothers pregnant during winter months) the likelihood of children going on to develop MS was 5% higher.
Dr Sreeram Ramagopalan, from Queen Mary University of London, Blizard Institute, says, “Around 90% of women are vitamin D deficient during the winter months, which means pregnant women are especially at risk. Research has been pointing this way for years but this is the biggest study of its kind. It may be a small effect but it is now proven.”
Pregnant women across the UK are currently advised by the NHS to take 10 micrograms of vitamin D supplements daily. As Chief Medical Officer for England Professor Dame Sally Davies notes, there are multiple benefits to taking the supplement.
“People at risk of vitamin D deficiency, including pregnant women and children under 5, are already advised to take daily supplements. Our experts are clear – low levels of vitamin D can increase the risk of poor bone health, including rickets in young children.”
The Department of Health adds that while vitamin D is naturally obtained from some foods, such as oily fish and eggs, “It’s difficult to get enough from food alone”. This is particularly important if you’re pregnant, as your diet is effected, notably with oily fish being limited to two portions a week (such as salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, pilchards and sardines).
Receiving vitamin D from sunlight isn’t discouraged in pregnancy, but taking sufficient care not to burn is still the advice.
Dr Sandeep H Cliff, Consultant Dermatologist and surgeon, says, “No one advocated complete avoidance of the sun – just cautious exposure.”
Helen Taylor, Independent midwife for Midwifecare.co.uk and harleystreet.com, adds, “Sunlight exposure is the most important source of vitamin D. Regularly going out even for a few minutes, while taking care to avoid sunburn, should be enough.”
The Multiple Sclerosis Trust states, “Studies of the distribution of MS around the world show that it is generally more common the further you are from the equator. This suggests a link between lack of exposure to sunlight, consequent lack of vitamin D production and the development of MS.”
Dr Ramagoplalan is calling for the Government to ensure local healthcare authorities are providing pregnant women with the right information.