"Doctors couldn't believe how much my skin was peeling," said Rahul, now 38 and living in Surrey. "They had to wrap me in bandages from head to toe."
Conventional treatments—a variety of creams, ointments and oral drugs—did little to help Rahul's sore, itchy skin, and his eczema, or 'atopic dermatitis' as it's medically known, continued into Rahul's teenage and adult years, along with asthma, which was also making his life a misery.
"The two conditions seemed to be connected," said Rahul. "When one flared up, so did the other."
He found himself suffering from depression too, which was similarly resistant to the medication prescribed for it.
Frustrated with constantly feeling "under the weather," Rahul turned to alternative therapies, although at first, he didn't have much success with these either.
"I tried acupuncture, herbs and homeopathy," he recalls. "They helped a bit, but not very much."
But then a complementary therapist made a suggestion that would completely change Rahul's life. "She recommended I get my vitamin D levels checked. It was something no one had considered before."
D deficiency in Asian Brits
Following a blood test arranged through his primary care doctor, Rahul discovered he was severely deficient in vitamin D, and was prescribed supplements of the essential vitamin right away.
"It turns out it's a very common problem among British Asians like myself," explains Rahul. "Something like 90 percent of Asians in the UK are affected."
But after four months on the supplements, Rahul's vitamin D levels remained unhealthily low. So he decided to increase his daily dosage.
"I started taking two or three times the amount my doctor recommended," said Rahul. "And that's when I started to notice a difference."
After six months on high-dose supplementation, Rahul experienced a dramatic turnaround in his health. "I felt so much better. The depression had lifted, and my skin was starting to improve."
Tests revealed that Rahul's vitamin D had reached normal levels, but he continued to take the supplements, albeit at a lower dose, and continued to see improvements.
Culling other culprits
Buoyed by the success of vitamin D, Rahul started to look into other environmental factors that could be having an impact on his symptoms, like the type of detergent he was using.
Although Rahul's doctor told him that changing his detergent would have no effect on his health, Rahul did it anyway—and noticed a big difference in both his eczema and asthma after just a few weeks.
"I used to use the big name brands, but these are full of known irritants like artificial fragrances. Switching to a more natural, hypoallergenic formula has really helped."
It especially helped with the night-time itching and scratching Rahul had put up with for years, suggesting that his bedding could have been making his eczema worse.
"I could finally get a good night's sleep," he said.
Rahul also swapped his regular cleaning products and toiletries for allergy-friendly ones. "You can't just buy them from your local supermarket—you have to order them online or go to a health food store—but it's worth it."
Another important change Rahul made was cutting wheat and gluten from his diet. "According to tests I'd had in the past, I wasn't allergic to any foods in particular," Rahul said. "But to me there was a clear connection. I had fewer symptoms when I avoided wheat and gluten."
Rahul gave up refined sugar and alcohol too, which he said had a positive effect on his asthma.
Instead, Rahul focused on eating fresh whole foods, mostly organic, including vegetables, fruit, corn, rice and meat.
Avoiding second-hand smoke also helped Rahul's asthma. "I was so grateful for the smoking ban [in bars and restaurants]," said Rahul. "But I still have to be careful. And I try to get out to the countryside for fresh air as much as I can."
Rahul believes that all the changes he made had a synergistic effect on his health and have led him
to where he is today—which, he says, is "90 percent better."
He still takes the vitamin D supplements and has to be careful of his diet and lifestyle—to the point of having to take his own bed linen and towels with him when he's away from home—but as long as he does, his eczema and asthma are no longer a problem.
"More people need to know about these things," says Rahul. "They really can make a difference."
What dose of D?
Although we're designed to get most of the vitamin D we need through our skin by exposure to sunlight, many factors affect our ability to make the vitamin—for instance, skin color (darker skin makes less), how much we cover ourselves up with clothes and sunblock, and how much sun exposure we get when it's high in the sky, when the all-important ultraviolet B (UVB) rays are at their strongest.
This inevitably means that many of us may not be getting enough of it. Still, health authorities worldwide are rather conservative about their vitamin D recommendations. As Rob Verkerk, executive and scientific director of the Alliance for Natural Health International, points out, "If you follow the US, Australian, UK or any other government's recommendations, the true vitamin D experts say you'll be increasing your risk of serious disease later in life"—because they're too low.
What 'true experts' like the Vitamin D Council recommend is a dose of 5,000 IU/day of vitamin D in the form of vitamin D3 supplements for the average adult. But, depending on your size and lifestyle, taking up to 10,000 IU/day would still be safe, they say.
For more information on vitamin D, visit www.vitamindcouncil.org.
Vitamin D: beyond bones
Vitamin D deficiency is probably most commonly associated with rickets, which causes soft and weak bones, but the latest research suggests that not getting enough D can also lead to a variety of other health problems, including the ones Rahul suffered from: eczema, asthma and depression.
Vitamin D and eczema
Vitamin D is known to have a regulatory influence on both the immune system and skin barrier function, both critical in the development of eczema. Indeed, several studies have suggested a link between low levels of the vitamin and an increased incidence and severity of eczema symptoms.1
In one study of 73 children with eczema carried out in Turkey, among those who had allergic reactions to specific agents in skin tests, the lower the vitamin D levels, the worse the eczema.2
Other findings show that taking vitamin D supplements can improve eczema. According to a recent pooled analysis of randomized controlled trials (considered the scientific gold standard for testing whether something works or not), vitamin D supplements significantly reduced the severity of eczema compared with a placebo—and were also "safe and tolerable."3
Vitamin D and asthma
Vitamin D has been linked to immune-system and lung development in the womb, and studies suggest that higher vitamin D intake by pregnant mothers can reduce the risk of asthma by as much as 40 percent in their children when they're three to five years old.4
In asthmatic children, low vitamin D levels are associated with poor asthma control, reduced lung function, increased medication use and asthma exacerbation, while in asthmatic adults, the lower the levels of vitamin D, the worse the asthma.5
As for vitamin D supplements as a treatment, the evidence is conflicting. However, a review of all relevant published studies found significantly fewer emergency hospital visits for asthmatic children treated with vitamin D, plus a reduced risk of asthma exacerbation.6
Vitamin D and depression
Vitamin D receptors are found in many parts of the brain,7 and mounting evidence indicates that not getting adequate amounts of the vitamin may be involved in the development of depression and other mental health conditions.
In a pooled review of all the evidence on vitamin D and depression involving more than 30,000 people, lower D levels were found in those with depression than in those without it.8
And in one study that looked at only obese and overweight people, those with low blood levels of vitamin D had more symptoms of depression, but supplementing with high-dose vitamin D improved these symptoms after a year.9