In the 1600s, a plague occurred in England. It was called rickets or “The English disease.”
Children were born healthy but between 6 months and two years, the disease “began to rage.”
The disease was most obvious in the legs and spine. The babies grew up bow legged or knock kneed with curved spines. For a century it was seen in the wealthy, who didn’t go out much and used plenty of white make-up containing lead to make themselves pale and cover their wrinkles. Gradually, people began to see a link between poor diet, lack of outdoor exercise and rickets.Travelers noted that people in Japan, who valued time outdoors, did not have rickets, nor did people in the tropics–even if they were malnourished. Prominent health experts such as Florence Nightingale and Welsh surgeon Hugh Owen Thomas began advocating “sunshine” therapy. Cod liver oil–foul tasting but packed with yet undiscovered Vitamin D– was used as a preventative.By 1919 rickets was associated with poverty and poor living conditions. In 1909, among infants 18 months or less who had died, one doctor found rickets in 96% (214 of 221) at autopsy.
WWI was hard on Germany and its allies and orphans were particularly ill-fed, kept indoors, and thus were rickety. A German doctor,Kurt Huldschinsky, noted how pale they were and estimated that half had rickets. He attempted to treat them, first with x-rays and then with ultraviolet light on one arm. The later treatment improved rickets in the exposed arm and the doctor theorize that sunlight must help the body make a chemical that prevented rickets. Vitamins were newly discovered (as of 1912). That very same year–1919-Sir Edward Mellanby, did experiments on dogs with rickets and discovered Vitamin D and its role in preventing rickets. Thus it was established that exposure to sunlight and Vitamin D, such as in cod liver oil, could prevent and reverse rickets.Following this, having a healthy tan became important to white people and being outside was important to all. Accordingly, women’s fashions became more revealing.
By the 1920s, Vitamin D was added to milk in the United States. We now know Vitamin D is important in calcium absorption and behaves like a hormone, affecting all cells in your body. Although it has been touted as a cure all for everything from cancer to depression and it does help the immune system, some of the claims need more study.
Rickets can still be found today. Children have even died from rickets! Those most susceptible are young, breastfed, elderly, thin, smoke, drink, have dark skin, and live in northern or cloudy climates. There are also cases of genetic deficiencies causing rickets.
Be careful. You can get too much Vitamin D. Confusion, stomach pain, fatigue, and thirst are among the symptoms.
Going outside with non-covering clothes for 20 minutes several times a week can provide enough Vitamin D. Prolonged exposure doesn’t translate into more Vitamin D so no need to overdo. Vitamin D is fat soluble and stored in the body. A dose can last up to two months.
Rickets is once again on the rise in the United States, the UK, and Canada. Fortunately, since 1919, the cause is known and it can be cured.