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Vitamin D deficiency in the Roman Empire

The undersupply of the famous “light vitamin” is a problem of the modern way of life, one might think. But even in the Roman Empire, vitamin D deficiency was widespread and led to rickets in children, researchers report. On average, one child out of 20 was affected, shows the examination of skeletons from all parts of the former Roman Empire.

The importance of vitamin D has come into focus in recent years: There is evidence that low vitamin D levels play a role in various health problems. This vitamin has a peculiarity in this context: Food can usually only provide it inadequately. The natural supply, on the other hand, comes from solar radiation - vitamin D is formed in the skin through UV radiation and then distributed throughout the body. With today's widespread way of life in closed rooms, this process can often not take place sufficiently. In this case, vitamin D should be supplied through supplements. This is especially true for children, pregnant women and nursing mothers.

Tracking down the history of rickets

A particularly severe vitamin D deficiency leads to a characteristic disease in children: rickets. This leads to a deficient development of the skeleton and other health impairments. The clinical picture corresponding to rickets in adulthood is called osteomalacia. It is already known that these consequences of vitamin D deficiency were widespread, especially in the birth cities of the industrial revolution in the 19th century. The reason: Due to the way of life in overcrowded dark cities and the light-absorbing air pollution, many people received too little UV light. As a result, many children developed rickets.

A team of researchers from the British monument preservation authority Historic England and the Canadian McMaster University in Hamilton have now taken a deeper look into the history of vitamin D deficiency. As part of their study, the scientists examined 2,787 skeletons that came from 18 cemeteries in all parts of the Roman Empire. They cover a period from the 1st to the 6th century AD. Using characteristic features of the skeletons, the researchers were able to diagnose the consequences of vitamin D deficiency.

Too much in the shade?

Their investigations showed: Vitamin D deficiency was not as pronounced in Roman times as it was during the industrial revolution in the 19th century, but it was evidently a considerable problem. On average, about one in 20 children showed signs of rickets. This could have been due to infant care practices common at the time - the little ones may have been kept away from the light, the researchers say. In this context, it is also becoming apparent that rickets tended to occur more frequently in children in northern parts of the Roman Empire than in the Mediterranean region. The colder conditions in the northern areas may have made the babies less exposed. Pregnant women and nursing mothers may also have suffered from a vitamin D deficiency and were therefore also barely able to pass the nutrient on to their children. "Infant care practices that still worked in a Mediterranean climate could have led to vitamin D deficiency under a cloudy northern sky," says co-author Simon Mays of Historic England.

As part of their study, the researchers also uncovered an interesting hotspot for the incidence of rickets in ancient Rome: Ostia. They found an unusually high number of cases of rickets in a cemetery in this particularly densely populated port city near Rome. The reason could have been the “shady” urban structure: Ostia is known for the remains of particularly high, multi-storey apartment buildings - the so-called insulae. Megan Brickley from McMaster University says: "Apartments with small windows and narrow courtyards and alleys could have meant that many children did not get enough UV light," explains the scientist. Her colleague Mays sums up: “Our study shows that it is an old problem - people were affected by vitamin D deficiency 2000 years ago”.

Source: Historic England, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, doi: 10.1002 / ajpa.23646

23rd August 2018

© - Martin Vieweg