Depression: Fighting the Winter Blues with Vitamin D
What Does Vitamin D Actually Do?
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble that is naturally present in certain foods and is also produced when ultraviolet rays from sunlight land on the skin and trigger vitamin D synthesis. The body producing vitamin D in response to sun exposure is why vitamin D is nicknamed the “sunshine vitamin”. Vitamin D has many important functions in the body, including maintaining healthy bones and teeth through calcium absorption, promoting bone growth, protecting against diseases and conditions, and reducing inflammation.
Vitamin D and Depression
Research has connected a link between people with depression and vitamin D deficiency. Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide and spikes in colder months, known as seasonal affective disorder. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is not considered a separate condition, but a type of depression with a seasonal pattern. Weather affects people’s moods. Dull, cold, rainy days make us feel gloomy and unmotivated, while sunlight breaking through the clouds can lift our spirits and give us a little feeling of hope. In fact, the vitamin D receptors in our brain are in the same locations in the brain associated with depression (i.e. the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, cingulate gyrus, thalamus, hypothalamus, and substantia nigra)
Causes of Vitamin D Deficiency
Sunlight can be an individual’s primary source of vitamin D. During colder, darker months there is less access to the sun’s ultraviolet rays to trigger the vitamin d synthesis in the body.
There are actually very few foods that have high amounts of vitamin D. Without adding any of these foods into your diet there is a high chance that you are not getting proper amounts of vitamin D in your meals.
- Red meat
- Egg yolks
- Fortified foods – certain cereals and juices
Older adults have an increased risk of vitamin D deficiency because the skin’s ability to synthesize vitamin D declines with age.
Greater Amounts of Melanin
Greater amounts of the pigment melanin in the skin reduces the skin’s ability to produce vitamin D from sun exposure.
Obesity does not actually affect the body’s ability to produce vitamin D, but the higher levels of body mass and fat sequestered requires higher levels of vitamin D for the vitamin to work properly.
Since vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, conditions that affect fat absorption also affect the production of vitamin D. For example, conditions such as liver disease, cystic fibrosis, celiac disease, and Crohn’s disease all have a negative effect on vitamin D.
Signs of Deficiency:
- Aching bones
- Fatigue or drowsiness
- Weak muscles
Signs of Depression:
- Insomnia or hypersomnia
- Loss of interest in activities you’ve previously enjoyed
- Feelings of sadness and hopelessness
- Loss of appetite
- Excessive weight loss or weight gain
- Struggle concentrating
- Thoughts of suicide
Reach out to a doctor if you are having signs of depression. If you or anyone you know are having thoughts of suicide here are some support resources:
- Call 911
- Go to an emergency room
- Text HOME to 741-741 to connect with a crisis counselor at the Crisis Text Line from anywhere in the U.S.
- Call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to be connected with a trained counselor at a crisis center anytime. People are standing by, ready to help without judgment
- Call Samsha. 1-800-622-HELP (4357). SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
Solving Vitamin D Deficiency
To treat your vitamin D deficiency the obvious answer is to increase your intake of vitamin D, but how? Ways to increase your intake are:
- Adding foods with larger amounts of vitamin D into your diet
- Vitamin D supplements
- Increasing your sun exposure
- Natural sources on sunny days
- In-home light solutions
Helpful Tips for Combating Winter Blues
If the lack of sunlight and lack of vitamin D is affecting your mental health and causing symptoms of depression, the first (and best) thing to do is always talk to a doctor and seek professional help. Outside of that, here are some self-care tips during the colder months especially that can help combat the winter blues:
- Exercise regularly
- Maintain a sleep schedule
- Communicate with loved ones and keeping a support system present
- Join a support group
- Stay tuned in with your body
- Create a mindfulness moment
All in All:
Vitamin D and depression have been linked through various studies, making vitamin D essential for not only your physical health but mental health as well. Getting the proper amounts of vitamin D can be hard, especially in the colder, darker months, but making efforts to include vitamin D in your diet or through supplements will help prevent a vitamin D deficiency. The winter blues can get the best of us, but if we take care of our bodies and our minds we can make it through the gloomy days and get back to the sunshine!