Vitamin D deficiency was rampant among children during the Industrial Revolution but was partly seasonal, reveals new research.
Lack of the “sunshine vitamin” causes rickets and its prevalence in northern England in the 19th century was thought to be due to pollution and working conditions.
However, scientists have now shown that lack of daylight in the winter up north also played a part.
Analysis of the remains of those who died during the 18th and 19th Centuries revealed that around three-quarters of the children lacked sufficient vitamin D.
This vitamin D deficiency (VDD) was known to lead to significant and potentially fatal health conditions.
A research team from New Zealand suggests VDD may also have been linked to changing social practices in class and gender and was likely a seasonal disorder.
The study, published in the scientific journal PLOS One, analyzed the teeth of people of post-industrialised generations taken from a cemetery in northeastern England.
The 18th and 19th centuries were a period of rapid industrialization and urbanization across England.
This was also a time of increasing incidence of health issues such as VDD and associated conditions like rickets.
Vitamin D helps regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body and is required to keep bones, teeth and muscles healthy.
Government health advice today suggests all Brits should consider taking vitamin D supplements during the winter months, when our bodies are unable to make sufficient vitamin D from sunlight.
Other sources of vitamin D include oily fish such as salmon or sardines, red meat, liver and egg yolks.
During the bustle of industrialization in Britain, however, children would have struggled to produce sufficient levels of vital vitamins.
Previous work at the cemetery site of Coach Lane, Tyneside, has identified rickets in the remains of children based on skeletal lesions.
In this study, an international team led by the University of Otago, New Zealand, aimed to build upon this previous research with new analyses of dental tissue.
The researchers examined the teeth of 25 individuals preserved at the site: nine male, nine female and nine whose gender is unknown.
The presence of poorly mineralized dental tissue was used as evidence for periods of VDD during childhood.
The analysis found that around three-quarters of those examined showed evidence of poor mineral metabolism during childhood, with a significantly higher incidence in males.
Some individuals also showed signs of repeated annual disruptions in tooth tissue development, suggesting a seasonal disorder.
The results reveal a greater prevalence of VDD compared with previous studies relying solely on skeletal evidence.
The researchers also suggested that the high incidence of VDD in males compared with females could be related to social dynamics such as gendered work practices in industrial England.
The researchers suggest future studies could expand on these results by exploring other proxies for VDD and related disorders, as well as by comparing results with similar sites across different parts of the world.
Study lead author Dr. Anne Marie Snoddy, from the University of Otago, said: “The post-medieval period – 16th to -19th Centuries – in England was characterized by increasing urbanization and a shift away from an agrarian economy towards manufacturing.
“While the British Empire grew in wealth and power, social inequality increased dramatically, observed in decreasing life expectancy of the laboring classes compared with the wealthy.
“By the 19th Century, large portions of the population, including young children, lived in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions and worked long hours in unventilated spaces for very little remuneration.
“Diseases associated with poor nutrition, poor sanitation, and crowded living conditions were rife in urban centers – particularly among the lower classes.
“We found 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.”
She added: “It’s more complicated than the factors associated with the industrial revolution like working indoors more.”
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
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