During the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to expose my skin to the sun for around 20 minutes every day – weather permitting. Why? To increase my levels of Vit D as this might protect me against serious disease if I do become infected by COVID-19.
At this point let me qualify that this action is based on my strong hunch developed from a range of facts, observations, and a few small epidemiological studies that are surfacing. It is as yet not supported by solid scientific – that is experimental versus a control group – peer-reviewed medical research.
The role of Vit D
About two weeks before lockdown I read an interesting article about the 1918 Spanish Flu where patients at a certain tent hospital were nursed outdoors and in the end, there was an exceptionally low death rate compared to the overall death toll. The author touched on sunlight and Vit D. This information stayed at the back of my mind triggering many thoughts – and google searches – like statistics and new knowledge about COVID-19 surfaced.
Most of us know about the importance of Vit D for bone health. But equally important to this discussion is that it also has a role in modulating the immune response and in blood clotting. This makes me think about the cytokine storm and the many small blood clots that are now recognised as the main reasons behind serious illness from the virus. Furthermore, a few studies have shown a link between Vit D deficiency and the severity of other viral infections.
Your body manufactures Vit D from the sun’s UV rays – best between 10:00 and 15:00 in most areas. You also get some from foods such as oily fish, eggs and cheese – but usually, we don’t consume enough of these foods to supply all our needs.
Studies have shown the Vitamin D deficiency is more prevalent after the winter – especially in the Northern hemisphere and then particularly in darker-skinned people. Also in the elderly whose ability to manufacture Vit D follows the same decline as most other parts of the body. Interestingly, Sweden has very little Vit D deficiency because the population consumes a large amount of oily fish and cod-liver oil.
COVID-19 and Vit D deficiency
I look at the COVID-19 death rates in countries in the Northern hemisphere compared to those in the Southern hemisphere. And also at the reports about higher death rates among Asians and Blacks in both the UK and the USA. By the way, the learned commentators mostly ascribe the reasons for this to the social determinants of disease. And what about the heavy death tolls in nursing homes for the elderly – how much sunlight do these people get?
My curious mind really would love to know what the racial breakdowns in South Africa are, especially as we know that there was little evidence of lockdown and social distancing in the overpopulated townships. But providing these statistics would, of course, not be politically correct.
There was one analysis, completed in 2017, of the few studies on Vit D deficiency done in South Africa. Interestingly persons in the Cape are more likely to have a Vit D deficiency, especially in the winter, because of the lower altitude and being more distant from the equator compared to the Highveld.
Could sunlight protect me against COVID-19
These are but a few pieces in the puzzle. Furthermore, the scope of this article doesn’t allow for a discussion of the few non-peer reviewed epidemiological studies on the link between Vit D deficiency and the severity of COVID-19 that have surfaced in the past few weeks. In the future research might, or might not, confirm my hunch.
In the meantime, as an elderly person with a co-morbidity and a blood test confirming low levels of Vit D, I’ve committed to getting 20 minutes of sun on my skin every day. Besides, it’s free and it can’t do any harm.
Please note that this is the personal opinion of the writer who has been a healthcare professional for more than 50 years.