Food and Behaviour Research

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15 September 2008 - The Times - Scotland's Poor Health 'caused by a lack of sunshine'

Melanie Read

A national campaign to persuade every Scot to take daily supplements of vitamin D is needed if the country's appalling health record is to be reversed, leading scientists believe.

A national campaign to persuade every Scot to take daily supplements of vitamin D is needed if the country's appalling health record is to be reversed, leading scientists believe.

A report, published this week, links poor weather to the lack of the "sunshine vitamin" in Scotland, and urges the Scottish government to launch a nationwide vitamin D programme to lower the incidence of devastating illnesses, such as heart disease, cancer and multiple sclerosis.

The research points to the country's damp, cloudy climate as a significant contributor to its bleak record of ill health and disease.

Vitamin D deficiency - caused by lack of exposure to sunshine - is twice as common among the Scots as it is among the English. The average Scot has a vitamin D level four times lower than their neighbour south of the Border.

A five-year research project by Oliver Gillie, a scientist and writer, demonstrates extensive and remarkable parallels between Scotland's dull weather and indices of disease.

It suggests that the "Scottish effect", the country's hitherto unexplained high mortality rate compared with other industrial countries, is in large part down to lack of sun. Crucially, a shortage of the "sunshine vitamin" is established as a factor in higher rates of multiple sclerosis (MS), diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, several types of cancer, cardiovascular disease and other ailments that together give Scotland one of the worst health records and highest premature mortality rates in Western Europe.

Dr Gillie's study - Scotland's Health Deficit: An Explanation and a Plan - echoes world-wide research on vitamin D deficiency but goes further, showing how the higher rates of disease in Scotland mirror closely the lower amount of available sunlight.

A lack of sunshine in Glasgow and the West of Scotland reflects levels of chronic illness that which cannot be explained by deprivation alone. A lack of sunshine on Orkney and Shetland - only 24 per cent of the maximum number of hours possible - corresponds to the highest prevalence of MS in the world.

By contrast, the South Coast of England, where such diseases are much less common, receives 400 more hours of sunshine a year than Scotland.

Dr Gillie says that successive reports on the state of Scotland's health have failed to recognise that insufficient sunlight and vitamin D are important risk factors, and calls for firm action from the Scottish government on supplementation and the fortification of food.

Last week The Times convened a panel of experts who studied the report and endorsed unanimously the importance of vitamin D as an important ingredient in creating a healthy Scottish population.

Dr Harry Burns, the Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, said: "It is important that attempts to improve health in Scotland remain focused on action on the social, economic, behavioural and psychological determinants of health. If vitamin D supplements can be shown to contribute to that agenda then we will make the appropriate recommendations."

Dr Adrian Martineau from Queen Mary's School of Medicine, London, who is working on evidence that vitamin D can reduce cold and flu symptoms, said: "This is a very important initiative. What Dr Gillie has highlighted is that 85 per cent of us have lower Vitamin D levels than we should have and 85 per cent of our cells need vitamin D to function properly. It's highly plausible that supplementation would be of great benefit."