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Is Vitamin D Deficiency India's Latest Epidemic?

07/07/2015 8:27 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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A woman lifting weights with calcium and vitamin D pills in the background

It is a truth universally acknowledged that behind every ache and pain, lies a deficiency. Well, mostly.

If you've been waking up tired, have knees that creak, have unexplained aches or mood swings, or have a child who is overly cranky, a sister who gets more migraines than Malaysian Airlines does passengers, a husband who, despite doing yoga, cannot bend his legs without a moan, or a mother who winces when she gets out of bed, then you need to know about a few things about Vitamin B12 and D3. According to a recent study, eighty percent of Indians suffer from Vitamin D deficiency, and they probably don't even know it.

It's like an epidemic that no one seems to be taking very seriously.

Lately everyone around me - husband, mother, sister, friends, gym-acquaintances, obscure aunts, long-lost Facebook friends (who I did not remember before they sent me chirpy friend requests) - seems to have one common complaint. They are all deficient in Vitamin B12 and D3, the consequences of which range from general aches and pains to, well, I'll let Google tell you the rest.

There is an eerie similarity to all their stories. They had a few, seemingly random, aches and pains. Needless to say, they ignored them in the hope that they'd magically disappear, which, of course, they didn't. Matters got worse, and one day they could not get out of bed. It was time to see the doc. Long story short, a Vitamin D3 deficiency (and B12, or both) was discovered and several calcium sachets, nasal sprays and (in some cases) injections later, viola! the pains vanished.

I am not sure if the universe was trying to tell me something or it was a series of random coincidences, but I could not go anywhere without someone telling me a scary story about the deficiency and its consequences. So, when I felt the first signs of a dull knee pain, I almost felt compelled to swing into action. I got my levels tested and marched off to the doctor with, what looked like, not a very promising statement of vitamin facts. The doctor almost fell off her chair when she saw my report (my sister's was much worse so she would probably have needed to breathe in and out of a paper bag before treating her, but doctors seldom like comparisons so I decided to not say anything).

I was deficient, or, if it's possible, worse than deficient and was promptly prescribed the little wonder sachets. Apparently, these would pump the required vitamins into my bones, after which I would regain the spring in my step that I had lost so freely. She also scribbled some other names on the prescription which I could not read, but which I was certain my chemist, who could by now probably read hieroglyphics, would be able to effortlessly decode. "If you are post 35 and have aches," said the doc in the classic how-can-you-be-so-callous tone that is probably taught at medical school, "then you need to get your tests done and start the supplements. That is if you don't want to be like that old lady with a stick."

She then pulled out a voluminous report of first world countries where adults routinely go for vaccinations and health check-ups with the single minded aim of arresting many ailments early-on. "These countries don't let you reach a point when you'll need emergency treatment for your bones" she said, like she was telling me delightful secrets of a magical kingdom. "We Indians take everything so lightly, we live for the moment. That is why old age is so difficult". I nodded obediently but did expect some sort of approbation for having come to her with my ailment and not neglecting it. She, of course, was a cast-in-stone doctor and continued her reproachful tone as she waved the report in my nose. "Did you take calcium after you had your twins?" she asked inquiringly, though she more than knew the answer. "No" I said like a berated child without meeting her eyes. "Well, if you educated people behave like this, what can we doctors do?" she shrugged helplessly. I continued to look solemn while fixing my gaze somewhere between her head and the poster behind her that preached, in bold, the benefits of the HPV and statistics of the number of women who succumb to the virus every year.

I told her that since I was only forty (something) perhaps I could still make amends and hope to have healthy bones in my old age. She smiled but her look was jaded, like she'd seen my types before. "See me again in six weeks," she said firmly, signalling that our session had come to an end. As I reached the door she looked up and said "and remember, if you don't take all the medication I've written, then don't come back." I nodded affably, if sheepishly.

I drove straight to my chemist who took one look at the prescription and knew what the problem was. He then joyfully narrated a long story about his mother-in-law who had the same deficiency, but who (of course) did not attend to it in time, and who then proceeded to break a bone and bend her spine in quick succession. He then added, in a prophesying tone, that his wife was headed the same way since she was not attending to her aches and pains despite his repeated warnings (I gave him the I-hear-ya nod).

As I was leaving, an elderly woman hobbled up to the shop. She asked for calcium nasal sprays. She was apparently deficient in Vitamin D and could not walk without a stick.

Like I said, it's an epidemic.

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