Take your pick, you can find science on every side of the question of whether vitamin D helps beat depression. Recent studies have not shown that a lack of vitamin D causes depression. However, although vitamin D did not help everyone, Dr. Jonathan A. Schaffer of the Columbia University Medical Center in New York City concluded that those results may be because vitamin D only helps reduce depression in patients who are deficient in vitamin D.
But, here’s the kicker, and it’s been in the news a lot lately. Many of us are deficient in vitamin D. So if we are fighting depression, there is at least a chance that getting our recommended daily dose of the sunshine vitamin could make a difference in how we feel.
A universal shift out of the sun
Back in 2008, Dr. Michael F. Holick and Dr. Tai C. Chen wrote in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that vitamin D deficiency had become “recognized as a pandemic.” So no matter who we are, or where we live, few of us are getting the vitamin D we need. We work long days indoors, and much of the year we may even commute in the dark. Even on warm, sunny days, few of us get enough moderate sun exposure for our bodies to manufacture sufficient vitamin D on their own.
These days we may also worry about skin cancer, or the sun damage that causes premature skin aging, so we use lots of sun block to keep us looking younger, and to protect our skin from UV rays. Unfortunately, blocking the sun’s rays blocks vitamin D as well.
What can we do? Some experts recommend at least 10 to 15 minutes of sun exposure a day, without sun block. Good places to get some rays might be on your back, shoulders or legs, while still keeping protection on your face and neck. Avoid the dangerous zone between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. to get your D without so much damage.
Why is vitamin D so essential?
After studying vitamin D for decades, Dr. Holick has seen evidence that it can improve levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, alias “the feel good chemical,” in our brains. Beyond helping us feel better, vitamin D is essential for keeping us strong and healthy, which could certainly have a secondary connection to our moods.
Too little vitamin D in children robs them of the chance to build strong bones. And for women, the same deficiency can rob us of the strength our bones used to have. We probably know to get enough calcium, but without vitamin D, the calcium loses its effectiveness. Not enough vitamin D also puts us at greater risk for developing Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.
You may not know that vitamin D deficiency also contributes to muscle aches, especially in the deep muscles that are close to our bones. It can be a factor in weight gain, and digestive disorders like Crohn’s disease. So, if we are already fighting a little depression, feeling stiff, sore, pudgy, and battling a tummy ache is certainly not going to help.
How do you know if you are vitamin D deficient?
If you experience a general achiness, know you get little sun exposure, and seldom eat fortified dairy foods, then you may not be getting enough vitamin D. Dr. Holick recommends shooting for 1,500 IUs (International Units) a day, and says that even 2,000 IUs have no ill effect for adults.
There are also blood tests your doctor can do if you want to be sure. For women over 50, a bone marrow density test can help you determine if your bones show evidence of osteoporosis. But if you are younger, and have the chance to head off these problems, a little more sun and maybe a supplement might protect you from a fracture in your future.
As with many other health options, vitamin D is not a standalone depression cure. But nothing by itself ever is. Any picture of good health will be made up of lots of different pieces, like a mosaic. The more pieces you can fit into your healthy lifestyle, the better chance you have. Vitamin D should be a key part of that picture.
Learn more at:
Michael F. Holick and Tai C. Chen, “Vitamin D deficiency: a worldwide problem with health consequences1,2,3,4” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/87/4/1080S.full.
Sarah Klein, “7 Signs You May Have a Vitamin D Deficiency,” The Huffington Post. More about Dr. Holick and his work. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/29/vitamin-d-deficiency-signs-symptoms_n_5200408.html.
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