Challenges of adapting to the long, dark winters when moving to Norway are often discussed. But something less commonly mentioned is a possible Vitamin D deficiency. Here's what you need to know.
Ah, the winter. Norway's snow-covered mountains glisten in the moonlight, and if you're lucky, a ribbon of northern lights flashes overhead. Yet, this scenic beauty comes with its own set of challenges.
The country's geographical positioning on either side of the Arctic Circle results in extended periods of darkness, especially in December and January.
This lack of sunlight has a significant impact on the health of Norwegians, specifically in the context of Vitamin D – a crucial nutrient synthesised naturally through exposure to sunlight.
While the Nordic diet provides most essential nutrients, it can fall short in providing adequate amounts of Vitamin D for those with limited sun exposure.
A Trip to the Doctor
Several years ago, I went to the doctor for a not-too-serious issue. As part of the consultation, she arranged a series of tests to check on general wellbeing.
When the results came back, I was pleased to hear that I was in the expected range for every single indicator. Well, every indicator except one. I was notably deficient in vitamin D.
“Isn't that the sunshine one?” I queried. “Yes, aren't you taking your supplements?” replied the doctor, to which I was more than a little confused.
She smiled, perhaps even rolled her eyes a little, then explained to me that many Norwegians take cod liver oil throughout the winter. Although the younger generations prefer Vitamin D supplements.
The next day, I began taking supplements, and continue to do so during the darkest months.
Vitamin D Deficiency in Norway
It seems I'm not the only one. Recent research in Norway has revealed a concerning trend: a significant deficiency in vitamin D among pregnant women within certain immigrant communities, as well as in their children.
This issue is of particular concern given its potential impact on child development. Notably, there have been instances where children from these immigrant families have shown symptoms of diet-related rickets, a condition directly linked to vitamin D deficiency.
The risk isn't limited to immigrants, though. One study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Public Health showed vitamin D deficiency is prevalent during the school year among adolescents in Tromsø, particularly among boys.
Why Vitamin D Matters
Sunlight serves as a vital source of vitamin D, essential for numerous bodily functions. Insufficient sunlight exposure, which is common for parts of the year in Norway, can lead to a vitamin D deficiency, which carries various health risks.
A key role of vitamin D lies in its ability to facilitate calcium absorption. Given that dairy and fish, rich in calcium, form a significant part of the Norwegian diet, maintaining sufficient vitamin D levels is critical for strong and healthy bones.
Vitamin D is celebrated for bolstering the immune system. Studies have indicated that maintaining adequate levels of this nutrient can diminish the risk of respiratory infections.
The limited sunlight in Norwegian winters can lead to decreased energy and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Vitamin D, often linked to enhanced mood and mental health, offers a potential countermeasure to these winter-induced conditions.
Finally, optimal vitamin D levels have been correlated with a reduced risk of chronic illnesses, including cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.
Do Vitamin D Supplements Actually Work?
Despite the widespread belief in taking Vitamin D supplements or cod liver oil, we know surprisingly little about the significance of winter intake of vitamin D.
“The uncertainty has two possible explanations: either the quality of the research has not been sufficient, or we are chasing a vitamin D ghost,” said professor Stian Ellefsen to Science Norway.
He also spoke of one recent study looking at Vitamin D supplementation for strength training that offered no measurable benefits, but it did appear to affect markers of cardiovascular function.
Should I Take Vitamin D Supplements?
Now, you can probably guess how I'm going to answer this question. I am not a healthcare professional, and you should absolutely consult one first.
That being said, the Norwegian health authorities recommend taking Vitamin D every day during the winter season.
Although vitamin D supplements and cod liver oil are widely available in Norway, it's important to understand the recommended daily intake of vitamin D and how that compares to your lifestyle.
For example, although sunlight remains the most natural source of vitamin D, incorporating foods like fatty fish, fortified dairy products, and eggs into your regular diet can help.
Consult your GP for personalised advice, possibly based on tests. In addition to your diet, factors such as age, general health, and skin pigmentation can also influence the ideal dose for you.