I used to be sad all the time. It didn’t matter what time of the year or season. I was sad. In fact, I was clinically depressed. And in the winter I would get even sadder because of the weather. It didn’t help that I lived in Utah where it snowed for up to 6 months of the year. I couldn’t wait to leave Utah when I graduated from college. I don’t think I consciously registered this thought at the time, but I must have believed my depression would decrease in the warmer weather of my native California. But temperature isn’t really behind depression. Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) is really about light and vitamin D, not the cold weather and snow.
When I learned about Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) I was actually quite happy. I was excited to find a possible cause for my worsening depression. I had already correlated worsening symptoms with a shift in the weather and seasons. After all, I had been depressed for years before I heard the term: Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.). I had experienced plenty of winters that had brought more severe depression, apathy, and fatigue. Once I learned that I was experiencing S.A.D., I was somewhat relieved. At least now I had a name, besides depression or MDD, to describe my heightened depressive symptoms during the colder months. Somehow, giving something a tangible name and description felt empowering to me. So, I actually felt empowered when I realized I had S.A.D. on top of M.D.D. The feeling of empowerment at such a diagnosis seems rather oxymoronic until you remember that I was desperately searching for anything to reduce my depression and anxiety. After trying a dozen medications and endless therapy, I was still just as anxious and depressed as when I had started. When I learned that S.A.D. is caused by cold weather I had something to investigate.
There is no officially accepted cause of S.A.D. Just like the exact cause of depression is undecided. However, researchers agree on two main theories: melatonin and vitamin D deficiencies. Both melatonin and vitamin D are produced within your body in response to sunlight. Therefore, if you aren’t getting enough sunlight, then your body doesn’t receive enough of the message to make melatonin and vitamin D. These nutrients are made by very different pathways. Melatonin is made in response to your eyes transferring light to your pineal gland. When your eyes and pineal gland don’t see the bright light, but instead, dim light all day long, as in the winter months, you may produce too much melatonin throughout the day time. This is just one theory about the interaction between S.A.D. and melatonin.
Vitamin D deficiency has been strongly linked with depression and S.A.D. If you have low vitamin D in your blood the question is not “will higher vitamin D levels help my depression.” The more accurate question is “how much will vitamin D help ease my depression.”
The winter that I began taking vitamin D supplements, was the first winter that I had not been bed-bound for multiple days at a time. Did raising my vitamin D levels “cure” my depression? No, I’m sorry to say, it did not. But it did ease my symptoms significantly. I felt less hopeless and less lethargic.
If you are already depressed and find that your symptoms are exacerbated during cold or winter months, vitamin D is worth consideration.
Most of the studies about S.A.D. estimate that 10% of people in the U.S. experience seasonal depression. I tend to think that a lot more people get S.A.D., but they don’t recognize the signs. Some may notice more moodiness or fatigue of feeling “blue” during the winter months while others may take an even deeper dive into the dark abyss of depression.
Here are some additional warning signs you can look out for:
- Loss of interest in life and can’t enjoy anything
- Finding it difficult to make decisions or concentrate
- Feeling unhappy most of the time
- Feeling tired and having problems sleeping
- Loss of confidence and self-esteem
- Avoiding other people
- Feeling numb, despairing and empty
How did we get so bad?
Researchers estimate that between 80-97% of the population is low in vitamin D. A landmark study in 2009 brought this epidemic to light. Because of that research, the Recommended Daily Intake was increased to 800 IU per day. But if you are deficient, you may need to take anywhere from 3000 IU to 50,000 IU to raise blood levels to optimal ranges.
So how did this happen? Well, consider the amount of time we spend outside compared to the amount of time spent outside by our ancestors. We are the exact opposite. Instead of being outside a majority of the day, we are outside only a small minority of daylight hours.
Imagine a time when humans spent more of their time outside than inside. I know it may seem hard to imagine but there was a time less than 100 years ago that people were getting hours of outside time.
It wasn’t that long ago that people walked or rode their bikes to school, church, work, and to visit friends. Just 20 years ago, most people had a front and backyard to maintain. That would include hours of weeding, mowing, blowing, and admiring.
But the modern lifestyle is very different. We live in apartments or condos with no yard or open space to relax in and maintain. With long hours of commuting, going to the gym, social drinking, and watching TV, some people only see the light of day when they open the front door for the pizza delivery.
Of course, this is the worst case scenario.
Take a few moments to jot down the total amount of time you have spent outside over the past 3 days. Did you go outside to get in your car or was it parked in your garage?
How long did it take for you to walk from your car to your job?
Did you exercise inside or outside?
And how about sunscreen? Are you a devotee of high SPF sunblock? Are you the guy at the beach who has so much sunblock on that he can’t rub it all in? Or are you the lady with sunglasses, a cover-up, a hat, AND sitting underneath an umbrella?
Now you are beginning to understand how we have an entire nation that is low in vitamin D. Our collective lifestyle practices have led to very little sun on our skin. Even when we are outside, many of us cover up with sunglasses, hats and the sunblock.
Why guess when you can test?
Most doctors are now savvy to the overwhelming plague of low vitamin D. You can even get a prescription vitamin D in a 50,000 IU strength. The benefits to the prescription are: insurance usually covers it, and you only have to take 2-3 times per week. I have seen clients who have to continually take vitamin D supplements and get enough sunlight in order to keep their vitamin D levels in the optimal range. Many people have the VDR genetic variant that results in low vitamin D. If you have this genetic variant you have less vitamin D receptors which result in less absorption of vitamin D supplements or your own home-and-sun-made vitamin D.
Vitamin D is not only helpful for depression, but it is also vital for overall health. It acts as a hormone and plays a crucial role in supporting your muscles and bones. It supports your immune system, lungs, heart, and brain. It is the only vitamin that your body can produce on its own. When you expose your skin to sunlight, the UVB rays collect in your skin. The rays convert specific molecules into active Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol). The Vitamin D3 then travels to your liver and kidneys where it becomes the hormone version (calcitriol) of Vitamin D. From there, it will either manage calcium in your blood, bones, and guts, or it will aid cell communication throughout your whole body. The “cell communication” department is the function where vitamin D eases depression.
What To Do If You're Vitamin D Deficient?
A vitamin D test is easy. You can order your own finger-prick test kit or ask your doctor for a test the next time you have your blood drawn.
Supplements are a great start. In the long run, you will get more benefits from being outside in the sun. Yes, I said get in the sun. Use wisdom when choosing your time in the sun.
Mid-day is the best time to absorb the sun’s rays. It has been proven that your skin will produce more Vitamin D during mid-day when the sun is the strongest. The closer to the equator you live, the easier it will be to absorb the proper amount of sunlight. There are other factors that reduce your Vitamin D production. Consider the air quality and cloud cover when you are in the sun.
Vitamin D production will decrease with age. Tanning beds can help increase vitamin D levels. When you go to the tanning bed, remember you aren’t looking to get sunburned or even tan. You are looking for 5-7 minutes to increase your vitamin D production.
Vitamin D supplements and medication have become the easiest and well-recognized source of Vitamin D since the landmark study of 2009. Various studies suggest 1000-4000 IU per day for adults to maintain adequate levels of Vitamin D. Recent studies have demonstrated safety at 10,000-20,000 IU's per day. Many people find it convenient to take 50,000 IU one time per week. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin so it is best to take it with a meal that includes fat. You need enough fat to fully digest and absorb a vitamin D supplement. Take a supplement that is emulsified in a fatty liquid, such as MCT oil, or take your vitamin D with a spoonful of butter.
Low vitamin D levels contribute to S.A.D., Major Depressive Disorder, as well as a host of other health problems. If you are trying to narrow down the physical causes of a mood disorder, investigate vitamin D first. It is just a simple test. The references ranges are easy to interpret the solutions are convenient.
Do you have more questions? Just set up a consultation with me and I can guide you through the process. Vitamin D is only one possible cause of depression and S.A.D.
Paying attention to your vitamin D levels can be all that it takes to make your life naturally happier and get rid of your S.A.D. symptoms.Click here to schedule your FREE Discovery Call with me!