A new study has found that a lack of vitamin D during the first 26 weeks of pregnancy increased the chances of women suffering a severe form of the illness, which causes dangerously high blood pressure.
Vitamin D is found in foods such as oily fish, eggs and margarine, but most of the body’s supply comes from exposure to the sun. In Scotland there is not enough sunlight between November and April for pregnant women to make enough of the vitamin they need to protect their health and their baby.
Research by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health in the US collected blood samples from 700 pregnant women who later developed pre-eclampsia in an effort to examine a woman’s vitamin D status during pregnancy and her risk of developing the condition.Lead author Dr Lisa Bodnar said: “For decades, vitamin D was known as a nutrient that was important only for bone health.
“Over the past ten to 15 years, scientists have learned that vitamin D has diverse functions in the body beyond maintaining the skeleton, including actions that may be important for maintaining a healthy pregnancy.”
The researchers, writing in the journal Epidemiology, took into account a range of factors that could have affected a woman’s vitamin D status, including race, pre-pregnancy body mass index, number of previous pregnancies, smoking, diet, physical activity and sunlight exposure. They found that having high enough levels of vitamin D was associated with a 40 per cent reduction in risk of suffering severe pre-eclampsia.
However, they found no link between levels of vitamin D and cases of milder and less serious pre-eclampsia.
Roughly one in ten pregnancies in Scotland is affected by pre-eclampsia. While most cases are mild, in around one first pregnancy in every 100 it can prove dangerous for both mother and baby.
If untreated, it can lead to serious complications including seizures and problems with the liver, lungs and brain. Labour may have to be induced to deal with the problem, even if that means a baby being born prematurely.
Many experts have linked the lack of sunshine in Scotland to the country’s rate of MS, which is among the highest in the world.