Scotland, the Sickman of Europe

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Scotland has long been called “the sick man of Europe”: our health statistics are quite shocking. Last year we finally shook off the dubious record of having the highest number of cancer deaths per capita in Western Europe, but we’re still near the top of the table for coronary heart disease. Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, has the UK’s lowest life expectancy and remains the only part of the UK where the average man does not live to be 70. Overall, people live for a shorter time in Scotland than in the rest of the UK. Politicians, doctors and statisticians are generally in agreement about the causes of all this: cigarettes, alcohol and fatty foods…. here is a great deal of concern in Britain as a whole about “binge drinking”, or drinking large amounts of alcohol in short periods.

According to a 2001 survey of consumer attitudes conducted by the Food Standards Agency Scotland. This survey found that, while 48% of Scots were fully aware of what constituted a healthy diet, only 23% actually ate healthily – the rest were “unable or unwilling to bridge the gap between awareness and actual behaviour”. The survey concluded that giving dire warnings about health simply does not work. People understand the theory, but can’t or won’t translate it into practice.

Saturday, 04 February 2012 20:25

By Stuart McHardy

Scotland has a reputation around the world. Generally we are known for our hospitality, humanity and culture. But we are also known as the Sick Man of Europe because of the extent of medical problems like MS, diabetes and even rickets.

While some of these problems are clearly linked to the endemic poverty which has been allowed to fester in our cities by indifferent and essentially corrupt politicians, there is another factor which has recently begun to receive attention, vitamin D deficiency which scientists around the world are becoming increasingly concerned with.

The lack of vitamin D is due primarily to a lack of sunlight, though even on sunny winter’s days the sunshine in northern climates is too low to be of benefit. The only way to counteract this deficiency is by ingesting vitamin supplements.

And therein lies the rub. Edinburgh GP Dr Helga Rhein has been to the fore in trying to raise awareness of this problem. Recently she told me, “It has become crystal clear that we have to do something about letting people know about the need to take vitamin D.”

She then made the point that it has been known for more than 100 years that vitamin D is important for the development of healthy bones and muscles. Rickets which used to be very common in Scotland was virtually abolished when cod liver oil, which contains vitamin D, was found to cure and prevent it. Several studies have shown that the majority of people living in Scotland are particularly short of vitamin D and that one in three of us is severely deficient.

Some recent scientific research has shown that extremely high levels of Vitamin D have absolutely no side effects at all. Dr Rhein points out that this makes it even more puzzling that the government recommended intake for expectant mothers is so low. The government recommends 400 IU daily where Dr Rhein suggests at least five times as much. 4000 IU daily has been declared the safe upper limit for adults by the American Institute of Medicine.

The scientific evidence is in, but as ever bureaucracy seems to be the problem. The problem is compounded by the fact that as things stand our GPs are not allowed to prescribe vitamin D. When you realise that people believe taking it leads to fewer colds and bouts of ‘flu’ (I can testify to that having been on it for over a year now), better repair of pulled or injured muscles and wounds, less aches and pains, better muscle strength, less tiredness and fewer feelings of depression, it seems plain daft that our GPs cannot prescribe it.

Because Vitamin D is involved in many cell processes that help maintenance and repair of tissue and supports the immune processes that defend the body against infection and the growth of malignant cells. It has also been claimed that it is of help to people suffering from cancer*.

No one is claiming that vitamin D is panacea for all ills, but the evidence from around the world demonstrates that it we need certain levels of it to keep healthy. In Scandinavia and Germany this has long been known and people there take it regularly and are encouraged to do so by their governments. The old cliche that prevention is better than cure seems relevant here.

People in Scotland, and northern England, who suffer from chronic medical conditions, and old people, often have low levels of vitamin D in their systems and Dr Rhein suggests that they should be encouraged take very large doses till their levels come up.

Your doctor can do a blood test to see whether your body stores of Vitamin D are adequate. Given the non-toxicity of even such high levels of the vitamin and the widely replicated scientific research showing the advantages of taking the supplements it is surely time that the powers that be gave GPs like Dr Rhein the power to prescribe them.

You can of course simply order supplements on line and take them yourself – I do, but as these supplements are of such obvious advantage it seems peculiar to say the least that the medical establishment in Scotland are not pushing them at us. After all prevention is not only better than cure it is also much more cost effective, which with the current political bleating about the state of the economy, and the strain ion NHS budgets, would appear to make the prescribing of widespread Vitamin D a no brainer.

And incidentally, the Daily Telegraph, not owned by Rupert Murdoch, reported last December 19, that sunbathing boosts men’s sex drives – and what do we get from sunshine – yep, Vitamin D.


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One thought on “Scotland, the Sickman of Europe”

  1. Stuart McHardy,
    Thanks for the good advice.
    While Scotland has maybe the purest fresh air and best food in Europe, the cold wet weather often keeps people indoors for weeks at a time, sitting in front of heaters, with very little exercise, a clear invitation to bad health.
    In Ireland, we share some of that problem, and we are not advised to take vitamin C supplements either, I wonder why.
    Growing up fairly poor in a large family, in the fiftys and sixtys, we occasionally were given cod liver oil to drink, this might well have kept us from long term illness, for which I am very grateful.
    This is February, I haven’t seen strong Sunshine for four months, so thank you, I will definitely get Vitamin D with my shopping this week.

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