Published on Tue Nov 13 2018

Vitamin D deficiency among northern Native Peoples: a real or apparent problem?

Peter Frost

Vitamin D deficiency seems to be common among northern Native peoples, notably Inuit and Amerindians. It has usually been attributed to: higher latitudes that prevent vitamin D synthesis most of the year; darker skin that blocks solar UVB; and fewer dietary sources of vitamin D.

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Abstract

Vitamin D deficiency seems to be common among northern Native peoples, notably Inuit and Amerindians. It has usually been attributed to: (1) higher latitudes that prevent vitamin D synthesis most of the year; (2) darker skin that blocks solar UVB; and (3) fewer dietary sources of vitamin D. Although vitamin D levels are clearly lower among northern Natives, it is less clear that these lower levels indicate a deficiency. The above factors predate European contact, yet pre-Columbian skeletons show few signs of rickets-the most visible sign of vitamin D deficiency. Furthermore, because northern Natives have long inhabited high latitudes, natural selection should have progressively reduced their vitamin D requirements. There is in fact evidence that the Inuit have compensated for decreased production of vitamin D through increased conversion to its most active form and through receptors that bind more effectively. Thus, when diagnosing vitamin D deficiency in these populations, we should not use norms that were originally developed for European-descended populations who produce this vitamin more easily and have adapted accordingly.