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New study: Vitamin D levels of the Maasai and Hadzabe of Africa

Posted on: January 25, 2012   by  John Cannell, MD

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The most frequent question we get at the Vitamin D Council is, “What vitamin D blood level should I have?” For the last seven years, we have recommended 25(OH)-vitamin D levels of around 50 ng/ml (125 nmol/L), which was our estimate of what vitamin D levels would be in very dark-skinned, scantily clothed peoples who live around the equator. Until yesterday, some of the best evidence we have had to support that recommendation comes from a 1971 study of 8 consistent sun bathing white lifeguards in Saint Louis, Missouri, whose levels ranged from 50-80 ng/ml.

Haddad JG, Chyu KJ. Competitive protein-binding radioassay for 25-hydroxycholecalciferol. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1971 Dec;33(6):992-5.

Yesterday, Dr. Martine Luxwolda and colleagues at the Dutch University Medical Center Groningen reported the vitamin D levels of 60 pastoral “hunter-gatherers” (35 Maasai and 25 Hadzabe), who live within a few degrees of the equator in Tanzania. All of the subjects had skin type 6, which is the black shiny skin common to those who come from equatorial regions, and also the skin type which needs the most sunlight to produce robust amounts of vitamin D. The authors added, somewhat tongue in cheek, that the natives did not use sunscreen.

Luxwolda MF, Kuipers RS, Kema IP, Janneke Dijck-Brouwer DA, Muskiet FA. Traditionally living populations in East Africa have a mean serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D concentration of 115 nmol/l. Br J Nutr. 2012 Jan 23:1-5. [Epub ahead of print]

The Maasai are no longer hunter-gatherers but live, along with their cattle, either a settled or a semi-nomadic lifestyle. They wear sparse clothes, which mainly cover their upper legs and upper body, and attempt to avoid the sun during the hottest part of the day. They eat mainly milk and meat from their cattle, although recently they began to add corn porridge to their diet. Their mean 25(OH) vitamin D level was 48 ng/ml (119 nmol/L) and ranged from 23 to 67 ng/ml.

The Hadzabe are traditional hunter-gatherers. Their diet consists of meat, occasional fish, honey, fruits, and tubers. They have no personal possessions. They wear fewer clothes than the Maasai in that the men often wear nothing above the waist. Like the Maasai, they avoid the sun during the hottest part of the day. Their mean 25(OH)D was 44 ng/ml and ranged from 28 to 68 ng/ml.

Many of us have been waiting years for this data. To me, it means that the Vitamin D Council’s recommendation of 50 ng/ml is just about right, although I cannot argue with someone who recommends a level of 55 ng/ml. Remember, when errors in measuring vitamin D are made, they usually are overestimates. Thus, if mean natural levels are around 45 ng/ml, keeping your level around 50-55 ng/ml keeps you within what both the Maasai and the Hadzabe are telling us.

4 Responses to New study: Vitamin D levels of the Maasai and Hadzabe of Africa

  1. Peter Louter

    Bit proud (as a Dutchman) about this contribution of the Dutch university of Groningen.
    Of course could results as these have been expected.
    I did’nt wait for it. My last testresult was 59 ng/ml
    Let’s hope that results like this one will convince the meds that everyone should have about
    50 ng/ml. A lot of diseases, pain, worries could be avoided, as not to speak about costst.

  2. Gary

    Do we have any stats on the disease rates of these people? It would be interesting to compare heart disease and cancer rates etc. Anybody know?

  3. Brant Cebulla

    Gary,
    I just did a quick peripheral look on the subject. Would love if we could get some people to chime in. The two greatest culprits of death in the Maasai, at least according to studies in the 60s and 70s, are homicide and syphilis. They do not suffer from heart disease but they may suffer from atherosclerosis (hardening of arteries). Stephan Guyenet discusses this a little bit here: http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/2008/06/masai-and-atherosclerosis.html

    A researcher named Mann found that their heart health was much better age matched. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=mann%20masai

    In this case, I think it’s really hard to separate vitamin D and diet. Are there any populations in Tanzania that eat a Western diet and get sun exposure? I would guess no, that if a population were getting consistent sun exposure, they’re most likely on a “primitive” diet.

    On a side note, I really enjoy this blogger/professor’s discussion on life expectancy, mortality, population health, nutrition and modern medicine. It’s an article I recommend everyone read: http://www.newdawnmagazine.com/articles/increasing-your-life-expectancy

  4. Rita and Misty

    Lifespan of Maasai.

    The below link discusses average lifespan of this culture. It reviews overall diet; however, I wonder how much of this group’s longevity has to do with optimal 25(OH)D levels:

    Sometimes medicine is both an art and a science. Let us use common sense, please. If this group lives as nature intended, and has a natural 25(OH)D level of around 50 ng/ml, shouldn’t we also?

    It makes instinctive sense to me..and I’m certain future science will back this up.

    http://www.pyroenergen.com/articles/masai-lifespan.htm

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