Scientists Uncover Unseen Culprit Behind Historical Vitamin D Deficiency

Holding Vitamin D Sunlight

Research led by the University of Otago has discovered seasonal vitamin D deficiency in industrial-era England, suggesting factors beyond indoor work and pollution contributed to historical rickets, and highlighting the importance of understanding past health issues to inform present-day vitamin D deficiency management.

Research led by the University of Otago has discovered that the widespread occurrence of rickets among children during the Industrial Revolution was not solely caused by factory labor and urban pollution, which were previously thought to be the main contributors to vitamin D deficiencies of that era.

In a Marsden-funded study, just published in PLOS One, researchers from Otago, Durham University, University of Edinburgh, University of Brighton, and University of Queensland, sampled teeth from a cemetery site in industrial-era England, looking for microscopic markers of nutritional disease.

Lead author Dr Annie Sohler-Snoddy, Research Fellow in Otago’s Department of Anatomy, says they uncovered some of the first clear evidence of seasonal vitamin D deficiency in an archaeological sample.

She says it has been known for many years that there was an increase in rickets, a childhood bone disease caused by vitamin D deficiency, in 18th and 19th Century Europe.

“It has been assumed that this was due to more people, including children, working long hours indoors, living in crowded housing and in smog-filled environments, all of which reduce the amount of sunlight that reaches a person’s skin, which is the main way humans make vitamin D.”

New Insights from Bioarchaeological Methods

However, new bioarchaeological methods enabled the researchers to get a much clearer picture of how vitamin D deficiency affected the people living in industrial England, rather than looking at bone deformities alone.

The study found markers associated with vitamin D deficiency in the interior part of 76 percent of the teeth analyzed. In many samples, these occurred regularly, in annual increments.

“This shows clear evidence of seasonal vitamin D deficiency in the teeth of people living in the north of England.

“This is exciting because it highlights that latitude and seasonal lack of sunlight was a major factor in the amount of vitamin D these people could make in their skin – it’s more complicated than the factors associated with the industrial revolution like working indoors more,” Dr Sohler-Snoddy explains.

The Ongoing Challenge of Vitamin D Deficiency

Poor vitamin D status is associated with several negative health outcomes including increased risk for infectious diseases, cardiovascular disease, and cancers.

Vitamin D deficiency has been an ongoing problem in society and Dr Sohler-Snoddy believes it is important to study what happened in the past in order to inform modern approaches to the ailment.

“We tend to think of archaeological human remains as belonging to a different world, but our biology hasn’t changed in the last 200 years.

“Teeth provide a really important source of information for archaeologists as they form in a very precise chronology and, importantly, their tissues do not change over the lifespan. This means that they lock in a record of a person’s development and this stays with them until they die, or the tooth is lost.

“Understanding how vitamin D deficiency impacted past populations and why gives us an important deep-time perspective on the disease,” she says.

Reference: “Vitamin D status in post-medieval Northern England: Insights from dental histology and enamel peptide analysis at Coach Lane, North Shields (AD 1711–1857)” by Anne Marie E. Snoddy, Heidi Shaw, Sophie Newman, Justyna J. Miszkiewicz, Nicolas A. Stewart, Tina Jakob, Hallie Buckley, Anwen Caffell and Rebecca Gowland, 31 January 2024, PLOS ONE.
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0296203

2 Comments on "Scientists Uncover Unseen Culprit Behind Historical Vitamin D Deficiency"

  1. No doubt a number of factors came into play in causing childhood rickets. Which is why free school milk was introduced in the UK for all schoolchildren, until stopped by the then Minister for Education, Margaret Thatcher, to save 4 million pounds sterling. I read years ago that as a result of that decision, childhood rickets was re-appearing in the UK after it had been eradicated.

  2. I’m not real happy with this article. Seasonality and latitude are not “the unseen culprit” in vitamin D deficiency. These factors have been well known for many years. If seasonality and latitude were the reason for vitamin D deficiency in the 18th and 19th centuries then why was it not as much of a problem in the 17th century? The article seems like a big nothing burger to me. A click baity title with little substance or significance.

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