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Experts Probe Irish Paralympians' Vitamin D Levels

30 August 2012

A number of Irish paralympic athletes have been found to be low in vitamin D – a vital component for healthy bones – new research by the University of Ulster has revealed.

The paralympians, some of whom are taking part in this week’s 2012 Games, were among 84 elite Irish athletes tested in the study.

The aim of the research was to investigate whether top athletes are getting enough vitamin D, also known as the sunshine vitamin.

Lead researcher, Dr Pamela Magee, from the University of Ulster, said: “The main finding was that low vitamin D status was common in Irish athletes.

“Over half of the athletes (55 per cent) who took part in the study were defined as vitamin D insufficient/deficient throughout the year, this was particularly evident after the winter months and in certain sub-groups, for example, wheelchair bound athletes.

“The research also found that vitamin D intake was low among the athletes, falling below the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of 7.5 micrograms.”

The research project as carried out by the Northern Ireland Centre for Food and Health (NICHE), at the University’s Coleraine campus in collaboration with the Paralympic Council of Ireland, the Irish Institute of Sport, the Irish Amateur Boxing Association and Down GAA County Board.

Dr Joe Conway from the Irish Institute of Sport said: “A growing body of scientific evidence has linked low vitamin D status to muscle function, with the potential of impaired physical performance, as well as an increased risk of infections and stress fractures, so we wanted to find out if this was a problem within Irish athletes.”

The 84 elite athletes involved in the study were made up of 17 boxers, 34 GAA players and 33 paralympians - 17 of these are taking part in the Paralympic Games.

The research was carried out between November 2010 and May 2011.

Both boxers and paralympians had blood taken to determine vitamin D status firstly, after the summer months (November) when vitamin D is at its highest and secondly, after the winter months when vitamin D is at its lowest.

GAA players were only sampled after the winter months (Mar/April 2011).

University of Ulster researcher Dr Kirsty Pourshahidi said: “Our main source of vitamin D is from the sun. However, in Ireland the intensity of the sun is too low during the winter because of our latitude. Therefore we can only synthesise vitamin D from the sun during the summer months.

“There are only a few dietary sources of vitamin D therefore we are reliant on making enough vitamin D from the sun during the summer to have enough stores to maintain vitamin D levels during the winter.”

Performance nutritionist at the Irish Institute of Sport, Dr Sharon Madigan, added: “This research provides us with the evidence we need to tailor dietary plans for our elite athletes and may require vitamin D supplementation particularly over the winter months to help maintain vitamin D status throughout the year.”

Researchers at NICHE will continue their study by monitoring athletes’ response to a vitamin D supplement plan.

The Northern Ireland Centre for Food & Health (NICHE) is a centre of excellence set up with EU structural funds in 1996 to provide greater understanding of diet-related health issues.