The Sunshine Vitamin
Many will attest that there is nothing quite like being outside, head thrown back, with eyes closed as the sun pours over our bodies. Over the past 20 years or so, we have been constantly warned about the ill-effects of too much sun. I now wonder if our heeding those warnings have created other problems. Problems like…
- Joint pain
- Skin irritations and hair loss
- Increased depression and anxiety
- Immune system issues
One of the reasons we need sunshine is because we need vitamin D, aka the Sunshine Vitamin. As weird as it seems, we get vitamin D from the sun. The sun turns a chemical in the skin into a form of vitamin D, D³. This then travels to the liver and kidneys and is transformed into what is called active vitamin D. While it is possible to get vitamin D from food, much of what we need comes from spending 10-30 minutes a day in the midday sun.
Even before the pandemic caused so many to work from home, we were no longer an agricultural society and spent much of our lives indoors. Because of the warnings about sun exposure, those who do spend time outside use sunscreen as a protectant. Living sedentary lives can lead to being overweight, and obesity is said to make the production of vitamin D problematic. Many, to compensate for the difficulty in making vitamin D, take supplements (prescribed D² and over-the-counter D³).
Our need for vitamin D was discovered alongside the diagnosis of rickets in children. Rickets, the softening and weakening of the bone, is the result of vitamin D deficiency. When there is not enough vitamin D in a child’s body, it is unable to absorb calcium and phosphorus from food. Without the right amounts of calcium and phosphorus, the bones soften, leading to rickets. In adults this may be experienced as joint pain and even osteoporosis.
“Don’t forget to drink water and get some sunlight because you’re basically a house plant with more complicated emotions”
Vitamin D and Mental Health
There is so much to be said about the importance of Vitamin D. Please take some time to read up on the connections between vitamin D and pain… vitamin D and bone loss and muscle cramps… vitamin D and heart problems… vitamin D and high blood pressure… Oh, I could go on, but I hope by now you get that the body needs vitamin D to work at capacity. Here, I will focus on the connection between vitamin D and mental health.
During my practicum experience I recall being instructed to ask if the client has a thyroid issue when assessing for depression. I learned that thyroid symptoms and clinical depression symptoms were similar. However, I don’t remember anyone saying we should check on a client’s vitamin D levels. But it turns out we should.
Studies have linked low levels of vitamin D with diagnoses such as depression, seasonal affect disorder (SAD), anxiety and even schizophrenia. In fact, the list of symptoms of depression similar to vitamin D deficiency include:
- Mood changes such as feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and hopelessness
- Loss of interest in once enjoyed activities
- Suicidal thoughts
- Loss of appetite
- Unexplained weight loss or gain
- Sleep problems
While there is no proof that a lack of vitamin D can cause depression, individuals with depression have lower levels of the vitamin. Could this be because depressed individuals tend to lead lifestyles like those with vitamin D deficiency? There has long been research to support that battling chronic illness can lead to depressed mood. With more of us living solitary lives indoors, is it any wonder that more are also experiencing both depression and vitamin D deficiency symptoms?
Vitamin D Deficiency Risk Factors
- Old age (over time the skin is less able to make vitamin D)
- Darker, melanin-rich skin
- Lack of direct sun exposure
- Premature birth in children
- Not eating enough foods with vitamin D
- Conditions and procedures that impact the body’s ability to absorb vitamin D from the digestive tract (Celiac disease, Crohn’s IBS, bariatric surgery)
- Problems that impact converting vitamin D to a substance that body recognizes and can use (sever liver disease, chronic kidney disease, hypothyroidism…)
- Some medications such as anti-seizure medications, anti-cancer meds, and anti-biotics, anti-inflammatory… and some herbs
What Can You Do?
See a Doctor – While vitamin D is essential to physical and emotional wellness, too much of a good thing can be a very bad thing. It is important to get a proper diagnosis from a physician. This will include giving a medical history and bloodwork.
Go outside – Spend between 10-30 minutes in the sun daily. If you are home most days, take lunch time walks. Spend time outside on the weekends. Even most of us who live in apartments have balconies or patios; use them. Join a community garden… Take the dog for longer walks… Get a UV lamp if you live in northern regions with less sun.
Increase your intake of vitamin D rich foods – Oily fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, and sardines are good choices. Eggs yolks and liver too are vitamin D rich foods. If you are vegan, good vitamin D sources are plant-based milks fortified with D, specific mushrooms, and fortified foods like orange juice, tofu, and cereals. Remember, vitamin D deficiency can make getting what we need from food difficult. So…
Take your supplements and prescribed medications – For some, over the counter meds will be enough. For others, high-intense doses of D² are prescribed for a time. Depending on what your medical provider suggests… take them!