Study links sickest kids to low vitamin D levels

Most Canadian children need supplements: report

A new Canadian study of children hospitalized with severe infections shows three-quarters of them had low levels of vitamin D.

Our bodies make this vitamin when our skin is exposed to spring or summer sunshine. It also comes in cheap pills, in baby formula and drops for breastfed infants.

Canadians tend to have low levels of vitamin D because we live too far north to manufacture it for much of the year. Fall and winter sunshine is too weak.

But the 300 young patients at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and five other hospitals had low levels even by Canadian standards.

And Dr. Dayre McNally noticed another tendency among them: the sickest children and teenagers in the hospitals were usually those with the lowest vitamin D levels.

McNally, an intensive care physician, says most Canadian children need a vitamin D supplement, the dose depending on a person’s age and weight.

The study is published in the scientific journal Pediatrics.

McNally got started on vitamin D after a rheumatologist he knew found low vitamin D in children with unexplained joint and muscle pain. McNally then moved on to pneumonia, and eventually to a wide spectrum of illness in CHEO and other children’s hospitals. Most were severe respiratory infections and blood infections.

“We’ve known for 100 years that vitamin D was necessary for good bone growth,” he said. A severe deficiency can cause rickets, or crooked bones, but children with rickets often have pneumonia too.

A lack of the “sunshine vitamin” may not matter much when a person is healthy, his research found. But once a person is sick, the deficiency makes it harder to recover. And it affects many organs and tissues in the body – heart, lungs, muscles and the brain.

“They can get by with low vitamin D levels when things are going well, when you’re on even ground. But when you’re trying to climb the mountain, having low vitamin D levels is bad. Your heart goes, ‘Oh geez, now I really miss you.’ ” He believes our bodies need vitamin D to recover from surgery as well as to heal an illness.

In the youngest babies, a vita-min deficiency means their mothers were lacking vitamin D during pregnancy.

He says vitamin D doses in multi-vitamins for pregnant women are too low. Some infants were breastfed but not getting a vitamin supplement, and some older children had been staying indoors, or covering up with long clothing or sunscreen.

As well, vitamin D is added to milk but some children were likely missing it in their diet, he said.

Canadian studies have shown that “compliance with vitamin D in infants and young children is terrible.”

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