It seemed only fitting that I found myself, a health and vitamin D advocate, meandering through a “medicine market” during a mesmerizing visit to the People’s Republic of China. Tucked along a highway outside the ancient walled city of Xi’an, several structures housed a maze of stalls replete with raw medicinal goods that supply local hospitals, clinics, and health care practices.

As I sauntered along a narrow muddy path through the market, I was dazzled, yet humbled, by the sight of large sacks of unidentified herbs, jars of dried sea horses, flattened lizards on a stick, and elixirs promising to cure “what ails you.” Save for ginseng and ginger, the names of herbal medicines were lost in translation. The message however was loud and clear: China, one of the world’s oldest continuous civilizations, benefits from its long history of lessons learned. Twenty-first-century China continues to respect, and to a certain extent, rely on natural remedies for diseases of modern civilization.

Since the opportunity presented itself, I took a casual look at two popular health topics, vitamin D and diet, to offer thoughts and observations from my glimpse into today’s China.

Vitamin D

Reflecting upon the importance of vitamin D in preventing and treating a wide array of medical conditions, I wondered about the role vitamin D plays in Chinese health care.

Similar to other ancient civilizations, the significance of the sun in Chinese life is apparent. The Chinese character for “sun” 日 enjoys linguistic prominence in the Mandarin language, as well as its predecessor Sinitic tongues. The sun also is integral to the ancient practice of feng shui involving the balance of energies to assure, inter alia, good health.

However, geographical, cultural, and environmental factors affect the vitamin D intake of Chinese people including:

— The latitudinal positions of China range between about 18 and 53 degrees north, amassing footprints of widely varying sun exposures. People who live in northern China benefit less from ultraviolet B (UVB) sun exposure. Those residing in the southern regions enjoy a greater availability of sunlight.

— High levels of pollution plague the air of some major Chinese cities including the sprawling capital of Beijing. Air pollution blocks the sun’s UVB rays, obviating the natural production of vitamin D in the skin.

— Chinese females usually avoid direct sun exposure to prevent tanning because maintaining a fair complexion is a cultural preference.

— The shift from tending farmlands to working in factories lends itself to less UVB sunlight exposure.

— Nutritional supplements are not widely used in China. In addition, food fortification with vitamin D is rare. Although prenatal vitamins are sometimes administered to pregnant women, they contain woefully low amounts of vitamin D.

It also is interesting to note that a significant study about vitamin D status in pregnant Chinese women was published in the December 2013 issue of PLOS ONE. Researchers from The 306 Hospital of PLA in Beijing assessed the vitamin D levels of 125 healthy pregnant women who resided in the Beijing urban area during winter. They found that a stunning 96.8 per cent of the expectant mothers had vitamin D levels of less than 50 nmol/L (20 ng/mL), indicating vitamin D deficiency.

The conclusion of the “winter study” coupled with the results of a recent study of maternal vitamin D status during the Beijing spring indicate that pregnant women in Beijing are at a very high risk of vitamin D deficiency in either season. Of course, given the prevalence of factors influencing vitamin D intake, some of which are described above, I am not at all surprised by the Beijing researchers’ findings. I am however encouraged that vitamin D studies are being conducted in China with the hope that public awareness of vitamin D’s amazing health benefits will increase sooner than later.

Diet

Traveling in China also afforded me a glimpse into daily nutrition. Having enjoyed local cuisine in four provinces, I noticed a clear dietary pattern: lots of fresh vegetables, some animal protein (meat and eggs) and fish, no dairy products, and no processed foods. Whole wheat noodles were common in northern China, and rice in the south. Fresh fruit typically was served as dessert. No sugar apparently was added to foods and beverages. I felt great in China!

Since returning home to the United States, I have altered my diet by focusing on eating more whole fruits and vegetables. I also am concentrating on cutting out added sugars. While I have known about these dietary tips, living them in China has inspired me to improve my nutritional intake.

The China Study

While touring China, I recalled the landmark nutritional study called The China Study, one of the first books recommended to me when I began my journey in 2007 for better health. After returning home, I dusted off my copy of The China Study, published in 2006 and written by T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., and his son Thomas M. Campbell II, M.D. The comprehensive research described in the book is generally based on the China-Cornell-Oxford Project, a 20-year study that examined dietary and lifestyle factors associated with disease mortality in 65 rural counties in China.

The China Study primarily compared the health consequences of animal product consumption to diets rich in plant-based foods among people who were genetically similar. The authors of The China Study concluded, inter alia, that maintaining a whole-food, plant-based diet without any animal products and with a reduction in processed foods and refined carbohydrates will prevent, or reduce the risk of, the development of diseases including several types of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and both types of diabetes.

Examining the role of vitamin D with regard to autoimmune diseases including type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis, the authors surmised that people living at higher latitudes or consuming a diet rich in animal protein, particularly cow’s milk, are at a greater risk to develop autoimmune disease. They argued not only that vitamin D production is compromised by lack of adequate UVB sun, but excessive calcium derived from dairy products such as cow’s milk suppresses the manufacturing of vitamin D.

The China Study authors did not advocate nutritional supplementation except for vitamin D when adequate UVB light is unavailable, and vitamin B12 for people who completely avoid animal protein in their diet.
Suffice to say that The China Study underscores “how the effects of food—both good and bad—operate through a symphony of coordinated reactions to prevent diseases…” Food for thought indeed.

Think Beyond “Outside the Box” to Improve Your Health

A few “take home” points from my brief, yet enlightening, experience in China:

— Respect and learn from other cultures. Garner the lessons learned from ancient civilizations that have survived for thousands of years.

— Don’t reinvent the wheel. Nature has been here forever. Embrace its benefits.

— Empower yourself with the wealth of information available to you. I learn every day. And each day I strive to enjoy improved health.

Wishing you a happy and healthy 2014!

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