Children with stunted growth may be lacking adequate levels of vitamin D

Vitamin D, the “sunshine vitamin,” is one of the nutrients that the body needs to perform its functions. Unfortunately, a huge portion of the world’s population is deficient in this essential nutrient. Recent estimates show that more than 1 billion people worldwide suffer from vitamin D deficiency or insufficiency, which means that their serum levels have less than 20 ng/mL or between 20 to 30 ng/mL of the vitamin, respectively. This form of nutrient deficiency is associated with many health problems ranging from rickets to dementia. In addition to this, researchers from the U.S. and Ecuador also found a relationship between vitamin D deficiency, stunted growth, and being underweight in Ecuadorian children.

Vitamin D can be acquired through sun exposure, supplements, or food. It is mainly involved in the absorption of calcium and phosphorous for bone formation. It also plays a pivotal role in immunity and supports the different functions of the lungs, heart, and kidneys. Moreover, vitamin D is believed to improve cognitive function and mood.

In this study from the journal Public Health Nutrition, the researchers wanted to determine the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in Ecuador and evaluate its relationship with children’s growth and development. To do this, they first gathered participants who were between 6-36 months old and who lived in a low socioeconomic status setting. They proceeded to determine serum levels of  25-hydroxyvitamin D (25(OH)D), which is the form that vitamin D is found in after being processed in the liver. The associations between vitamin D levels, stunting, and being underweight, were then determined through multivariate logistic regression.

The results showed that 18.6 percent of the children suffered from vitamin D deficiency. The team also observed that the chance of having inadequate levels of this nutrient was two times higher in underweight children than those who were normal weight. Moreover, 79.2 percent of the participants who suffered from vitamin D deficiency exhibited stunted growth. This was higher compared to the percentage of children who had adequate levels of vitamin D and were stunted (58.3 percent).

From these results, the researchers concluded that vitamin D deficiency is common in children who are underweight and have stunted growth. They also suggest that an increase in vitamin D level, which can be achieved through diet and food fortification, can help improve stunting.

“The effect of vitamin D in improving growth parameters in children beyond the scope of rickets has largely been overlooked, even though there is a clear mechanism of action for vitamin D’s effect on skeletal growth. What we found is that subclinical vitamin D deficiency is associated with stunting in children without rickets,” said Dr. Rana Mokhtar of the nutrition and metabolism program at the Boston University School of Medicine and the lead author of the study.

Diseases associated with vitamin D deficiency

People who suffer from vitamin D deficiency also have a higher risk of developing the following diseases:

  • Dementia — Elderly people who suffer from vitamin D deficiency are twice as likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s. This finding, which was published in the journal Neurology, led researchers to believe that vitamin D has a role in clearing plaques in the brain that cause neurodegenerative diseases.
  • Prostate cancer — A study in Clinical Cancer Research revealed that there is a strong association between prostate cancer and insufficient vitamin D levels, especially in African-American men.
  • Heart disease — Numerous studies have shown that vitamin D deficiency is a major contributor to the risk of health problems like atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, and stroke.

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