Low Vitamin D: A Souvenir from Japan

by Miria Ginnis

I thought I was a fairly healthy person, until a blood test showed me that I was severely deficient in vitamin D—so low I was off the chart! Until then iron was the only nutrient I was a bit concerned about. But then my doctor explained that without vitamin D much of the calcium I consume may not be absorbed, and these are the last years of my life to add to my body’s calcium store. That woke me up, especially considering that not long before, while I was in Japan, I’d barely been eating any calcium-rich foods.
Japanese food
I’d adapted the traditional Japanese diet for a vegetarian that keeps kosher, which meant that I had a rather limited diet. I ate a lot of fruits and vegetables, some legumes, rice, eggs, and wheat products (as well as chocolate and peanut butter from the international food store). I didn’t worry about my nutrition though, because I was so excited to lose weight over there.

After seeing my blood test results, I began to wonder how the Japanese’s vitamin D levels compare to the Americans’. It’s true that they eat fish, a good source of vitamin D, which I don’t eat, but other than that I lived much as they did in respect to customs. I found out that Asia has higher rates of deficiency than the US or northern Europe,
Me and my student Iida-san
and Japan has one of the highest rates in all of Asia. Many studies (see a Canadian and American) link the “East’s” higher deficiency levels to diet, greater amount of clothing worn, less time in the sun, and darker skin. While in Japan I also covered up most of my body and stayed in the shade much of the time to avoid the heat. The little bit of sun exposure to my face, hands, and legs was probably my only supply that year, since my diet added almost none.

My doctor immediately prescribed me 50,000 International Units of vitamin D for six weeks, around 100 times the recommended intake. And after that she told me to regularly supplement with a basic tablet of 400-1000 I.U., especially in the six “winter” months in Seattle when the sun can no longer help. I also drink more milk now, which provides some dietary source of vitamin D. I have raised my level to “low-normal,” and my doctor may recommend that I take another six-week extreme dose during the winter to bring my level up even further. I will probably need to supplement most of my life unless I start to eat fish, or drink lots of milk and orange juice that has been fortified with calcium and vitamin D.

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