Dark secret: Low levels of vitamin D in elementary school could spell trouble in adolescence

August 21, 2019

Children who play outside gain more than social and athletic skills: There really is such a thing as a “sunny disposition,” according to researchers at the University of Michigan.

A study of school children in Bogotá, Colombia, indicates that the “sunshine vitamin”—vitamin D—not only supports bone health, but also encourages a healthy outlook.

In the study, children with blood vitamin D levels suggestive of deficiency were almost twice as likely to develop externalizing behavior problems during adolescence—aggressive and rule-breaking behaviors—as reported by their parents, compared with children who had higher levels of the vitamin.

Also, low levels of the protein that transports vitamin D in blood were related to more self-reported aggressive behavior and anxious/depressed symptoms. The associations were independent of child, parental and household characteristics.

“Children who have vitamin D deficiency during their elementary school years appear to have higher scores on tests that measure behavior problems when they reach adolescence,” said Eduardo Villamor, a professor at the U-M School of Public Health and senior author of the study appearing in The Journal of Nutrition.

Villamor said vitamin D deficiency has been associated with other mental health problems in adulthood, including depression and schizophrenia, and some studies have focused on the effect of vitamin D status during pregnancy and childhood. However, few studies have extended into adolescence, the stage when behavior problems may first appear and become serious conditions.

In 2006, Villamor’s team recruited 3,202 children aged 5-12 years into a cohort study in Bogotá, Colombia, through a random selection from primary public schools. The investigators obtained information on the children’s daily habits, maternal education level, weight and height, as well as the household’s food insecurity and socioeconomic status. Researchers also took blood samples.

After about six years, when the children were 11-18 years old, the investigators conducted in-person follow-up interviews in a random group of one-third of the participants, assessing the children’s behavior through questionnaires that were administered to the children themselves and their parents. The vitamin D analyses included 273 of those participants.

While the authors acknowledge the study’s limitations, including a lack of baseline behavior measures, their results indicate the need for additional studies involving neurobehavioral outcomes in other populations where vitamin D deficiency may be a public health problem.

According to WebMD, sun exposure is an easy, reliable way for most people to get vitamin D. Exposure of the hands, face, arms, and legs to sunlight 2-3 times a week for about one-fourth of the time it would take to develop a mild sunburn will cause the skin to produce enough vitamin D. The necessary exposure time varies with age, skin type, season, time of day, etc. Just 6 days of casual sunlight exposure without sunscreen can make up for 49 days of no sunlight exposure. Body fat acts like a kind of storage battery for vitamin D. During periods of sunlight, vitamin D is stored in fat and then released when sunlight is gone.

Research contact: villamor@umich.edu

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *