Residents of the Orkney Islands, an archipelago on Scotland’s northwestern fringe, are to participate in a major study designed to establish if a lack of sunlight – and therefore vitamin D – contributes to the onset of serious health problems.
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh will test whether there is any link between levels of vitamin D among the population of Orkney and the development of conditions such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis (MS) and heart disease.
Orkney, which lies about as far north as Juneau, Alaska, has the highest rate of multiple sclerosis in the world and researchers believe a lack of vitamin D may be a contributing factor. Scientists believe vitamin D helps to reduce the autoimmune reaction where the body's immune system turns on itself, which is thought to be responsible for causing the disease.
The study will identify how many people in the Orkney population are vitamin D deficient at different times of the year. More than 2,000 people will be involved in the research, which will also take account of participants’ diet, vitamin supplement usage and time spent outdoors.
The research results could cast an interesting light on the recent official release of vitamin D recommendations for residents of North America. While the recommended daily intakes were boosted substantially, they fell far short of what many vitamin D researchers were calling for. And the document made no distinction among populations living at different latitudes, which left many observers scratching their heads.
University of Edinburgh research fellow Jim Wilson, who will lead the project, said: "It has been known for a long time that vitamin D is important in bone health, but it looks like it might also be important in diabetes, multiple sclerosis, some cancers and heart disease.
“In Scotland, there is not enough UVB radiation to make any vitamin D at all during the winter months, and the cloudy Scottish summer often blocks much of the UVB from the sun. This study will investigate how vitamin D deficiency varies with the seasons, how people’s diet and time spent outside affect vitamin levels and whether there is a relationship between sunlight and diseases like diabetes and MS.”