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Vitamin D & Keeping The Winter Blues At Bay

December 21, 2012

Good news! The world hasn’t ended. Yet. 

However, there is a real significance to December 21, 2012. Today is the day that marks the winter solstice. This is the “turnaround” point when the days will slowly begin to be longer and the nights will become shorter. It’s the day when winter officially begins.

But frankly, if you live in Paris, the weather during the past couple of months has already been quite cold, dark and depressingly gray and rainy throughout the day every day. Whoever said that Paris is best when it rains forgot to mention that it is always raining in Paris! I expected this kind of weather in London. But not here.

Considering how high Paris is in latitude (it’s even further up north than New York or Montreal), the darkness during the wintertime makes sense. It’s now common for darkness to set in around 4:30pm and it doesn’t get light again until around 9am. But this shortness in the length of the day coupled with all this cloudiness and rain has been nothing short of a real bummer. And it is something that I am not used to.

Lack of sunlight, especially during the wintertime, truly does have an impact on our physical and mental health.

And I believe it has a lot to do with a deficiency in Vitamin D. Our bodies need sunlight to produce Vitamin D and oftentimes, there is not enough light in the wintertime to give us the required daily dose of this “sunshine vitamin.” Many studies have shown that low blood levels of Vitamin D can increase the risk of developing diseases which range from osteoporosis, heart disease, cancer, asthma in children, cognitive impairment in older adults and depression.

The Health and Beauty Benefits of Vitamin D 

The primary role of Vitamin D is to strengthen the bones by allowing the body to better absorb calcium. But Vitamin D can also play many other roles that are vital to our health and beauty.

Vitamin D can contribute to skin cell growth, repair, and metabolism. One of the main benefits of Vitamin D for the skin is in the treatment of skin-conditions such as psoriasis and eczema. Also, by helping to support the immune system and by reducing inflammation, Vitamin D can help destroy free radicals that can cause premature aging.

As we age, some of the bones in our face begin to shrink which can give our facial muscles and tissues a “sunken” appearance. This process can worsen wrinkles and accentuate jowls (loose flesh in the lower cheek and jaw that is characteristic of aging). So maintaining bone-strength by way of maintaining sufficient Vitamin D levels in our blood is just one way to ensure graceful aging.

In addition to strengthening the bones, Vitamin D also contributes to strong, healthy nails and teeth and can even help prevent the thinning of hair.

Keeping The Winter Blues At Bay

To be sure, the main health benefits of Vitamin D should be enough to convince anyone of the importance of getting a sufficient dose of it on a daily basis. However, what really encouraged me to do further research and actually begin supplementing Vitamin D into my diet was the fact that Vitamin D has also been shown to help boost moods during the winter months.

As fall settled in and the days became shorter and the nights became longer, I began noticing a decrease in my energy level and an overall sluggishness in my mood. I began to sleep longer hours and it became harder for me to wake up and get going in the day. It also became a lot harder to concentrate and stay motivated. I think this was what some people would call the “winter blues.”

While there is still so much unknown about how Vitamin D works in the brain, research has suggested that Vitamin D can affect daily biorhythms and help relieve mood disorders by increasing the production of neurotransmitters, including serotonin.

In particular, studies have shown that Vitamin D can help with a type of depression called “seasonal affective disorder (SAD),” which tends to occur annually during the fall and winter. The cause of SAD is not well known, but it is a disorder that tends to affect more women than men. It’s important to note that SAD is a real condition whose diagnosis and treatment requires professional psychological help.  It should not be confused with mild mood changes like the “winter blues” or “cabin fever.”

Making Sure You Get Enough Vitamin D

Making sure that you get enough Vitamin D is tricky.

First of all, it’s hard to get sufficient exposure to the right kind of sunlight that will stimulate the production of Vitamin D. This will depend on where you live, the time of the year, the darkness of your skin, how much clothing you’re wearing and whether or not you’re covered in sunscreen.

Second, very few foods naturally contain significant levels of vitamin D. Most of these foods are fatty cold-water fish like salmon, mackarel, bluefish, anchovies, sardines and tuna, as well as cod liver oil. Some foods are fortified with the vitamin, especially milk and yogurt, cheese and breakfast cereal. But you would have to actively be eating loads of these foods every day to even get anywhere near the ideal level of Vitamin D intake.

Third, what is the ideal level of Vitamin D intake anyway? This is a topic that continues to be debated. The idea is that too little is harmful while too much can be toxic. I have read that you need anywhere from 400 IU to 4,000 IU of Vitamin D daily. My best advice would be to get your Vitamin D level tested by your doctor and ask about your ideal level of Vitamin D, as it can vary for each person.

For me, the best way to get enough Vitamin D has been to take supplements. I have the Solgar brand of Vitamin D3 and I take 800 IU every day. I’ve only been doing this for a month now and I’ve already noticed real improvements. In my case, I know the evidence is only anecdotal, but I swear–taking Vitamin D supplements like this has really helped me to balance my energy levels and become a functioning human being once again, instead of a hibernating bear during the wintertime.

Solgar Vitamin D3 Fish-Based Oil Capsules

There is still ongoing research to prove or disprove the value of Vitamin D supplementation beyond its well-known benefits to bone health. As of 2010, there has been a large-scale, randomized trial involving 20,000 people across the U.S that’s being conducted called the VITAL study. Its objective is to investigate whether taking daily dietary supplements of Vitamin D3 and omega-3 fatty acids can prevent cancer and heart disease as well as help with other ailments such as diabetes, cognitive decline, depression and respiratory diseases. I am hoping that this is the study that will finally resolve all the conflicting opinions that has surrounded Vitamin D.

Other Tips For Staying Bright-Eyed and Bushy-Tailed During The Cold, Dark Winter Days Ahead

So, apart from taking Vitamin D supplements, there are of course a load of other things we can do to stay on top of the winter blues. I would suggest the following three things:

1) Eat healthy and balanced meals. There is a real connection between what we eat and our thoughts, behavior and emotions. A nutritional imbalance can make us prone to depression and affect its duration. Also, supplements can only truly be effective when used in conjunction with a healthy and balanced diet.

2) Stay moving. Regular exercise has also been shown time and time again to boost mood. This is especially true when exercise takes place outdoors in a green environment. Movement stimulates the release of mood-boosting endorphins and can improve the quality of your sleep.

3) Enjoy time with your loved ones! People who are prone to mood disorders should definitely avoid being isolated and instead seek out social contact. What more perfect time of the year than Christmas and New Year’s to enjoy the company of your family and friends?

What about you? What are your tips for beating the winter blues?