As the winter creeps closer for the northern hemisphere, one thing that some of us are worrying about is getting enough vitamin D. Studies show that direct sunlight helps our bodies make vitamin D. And so people who live in places where there's less sunlight are prone to vitamin D deficiency.
Which is why it’s surprising that the United Arab Emirates, a place with plenty of sun, sees a high number of people with vitamin D deficiency.
Dr. Humeira Badsha, a rheumatologist in Dubai, says that at any given time, more than 50 percent of UAE citizens are deficient.
I ask Badsha what could explain these high percentages?
“When people ask me this question, 'How can it be that there's so much vitamin D deficiency in a sunny country?'" she says. “I ask them, 'How much time do you actually spend outside?'"
The answer? Very little.
“Everyone in the UAE gets from their air-conditioned condo or flat into an air-conditioned car, with tinted glasses sometimes, and goes to their air-conditioned office,” explains Badsha.
She adds that often they park as close to the building as possible.
“It's a lifestyle which doesn't promote that kind of being outside,” she says.
And who could blame them? In the summer, temperatures constantly reach above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Mix in suffocating humidity, and it's obvious why no one wants to spend time outdoors.
But there are other factors, besides the heat and humidity.
“One of the reasons is the traditional dress,” Badsha says. “It's not just the traditional dress of hijab. But also Asian and other South Asian women who live here. They wear long, conservative clothing, and it's a cultural practice not for them to spend time in the sun, not to sun tan ... they don't like to sun tan.”
Lighter skin is more popular, she adds.
Leena Amiri is one Emirati women who wears traditional clothing, called an "abaya." She was diagnosed with vitamin D deficiency recently.
“When I got the diagnosis, it made sense. I feel lazy all the time, sleepy all the time, body aches ... and these are symptoms that are associated with vitamin D deficiency,” she says.
Amiri says vitamin D deficiency is a condition that runs in the family.
“My mom, who was diagnosed with vitamin D deficiency, was for the longest time tired, and nobody knew what was wrong with her,” she explains. “She would fall sleep in the middle of a meal, [she was] forgetful,” Amiri says.
Then she went to a doctor, and she was diagnosed to have vitamin D deficiency.
“Once that was corrected,” she says, “everything changed.”
I met Amiri through her husband, Dr. Hassan Galadari, a dermatologist in Dubai. He says he's worried about how tanning salons have been taking advantage of vitamin D deficiency in their ads.
"You open any magazine, you see all these tanning salon advertisements, and some of them actually mention vitamin D," he says.
Yes, tanning salons. In Dubai.
The pitch is this: Come get your vitamin D. In the privacy of a salon, and in the fraction of the time you'd need to spend out in the sun.
I stopped by the Mega Sun tanning salon in Dubai to speak with Marlyn Armamento, who has been working for the salon since last year.
There are three rooms. Each has a tanning bed the size of a couch. They look like spaceships. You can get your tan standing up or lying down.
A sign on the door, written with big letters, reads, "Vitamin D for your life."
Armamento tells me that Mega Sun uses the latest, high-tech tanning beds, which are safe as long as clients follow instructions. She says the beds help the body make vitamin D.
Wafa Rais is convinced. She's a loyal customer of Mega Sun, and she's visiting for a short session. She has long, blond hair that was completely covered before she walked in. She wears thick, black mascara and shiny, nude lip gloss.
“I try to come once a week, if I don't get natural sun,” she says. “I don't get time, honestly, to go to the beach ... and it's way too hot. So, here it's a lot safer to come in to these tanning beds, and it's less time-consuming.”
“Safer in what sense?” I ask.
“In terms of the rays,” she responds. “I read online that it's a lot safer than being exposed to direct sunlight.
Dr. Galadari, the dermatologist, is skeptical.
“First of all, they're not going to get their vitamin D because it doesn't contain UVB, which is the one that plays a role in the production and the metabolism of the vitamin D,” he says. “In addition, they're basically risking — UVA causes a lot of problems ... like DNA breakdown and so forth, that can lead to skin cancer at the end of the day. So, it's quite dangerous.”
Dr. Badsha, the rheumatologist, says a better solution would be for the UAE to do what the US and some European countries have done.
“In [those countries], they actually put vitamin D supplementation into milk, into eggs, into certain foods which people commonly consume,” she says.
This, she says, is a more realistic approach than asking patients to spend more time outdoors or change the way they dress.
Amiri, the Emirati woman who was diagnosed recently, says the supplements she's been taking have made all the difference. For example, she feels a lot more energized.
And now, anytime someone in the family feels sluggish, she knows what to ask.
“Did you check the vitamin D level?” she says with a chuckle. “This is the first thing.”
I leave Amiri to sit in their air-conditioned office and dash off to the air-conditioned car waiting to take me to my air-conditioned hotel.