Winter Got You Down? Here’s Why You Might Need the Sunshine Vitamin
It was a pretty wet and gloomy start to winter this year, in Christchurch. For quite a number of weeks I couldn’t get over at how grey and miserable it felt.
I would often comment on missing the sunny but frosty days as I stood at the window sadly looking at the pond forming in the backyard from all the rain.
Thankfully the last few weeks of June have seen some super frosty days but with the cranking sunshine!
It’s amazing how much of an impact the sun can have on our mood, huh?
And it’s no wonder!
The science and nutrition behind the sun and our mood is pretty amazing.
Sunlight and Serotonin
Did you know that sunshine helps to stimulate the part of the brain that regulates melatonin?
That process allows for an increase in serotonin the neurotransmitter that helps you feel happy!
As humans, we are programmed to be outdoors – working in the sun.
So, during the night, the lack of light detected by our eyes sends a message to the brain to produce melatonin which is a sleep hormone. At the same time, less serotonin is produced which allows the natural sleep cycle to kick in.
When our eyes detect sunlight, our brain receives this message to wake the body up. Melatonin production slows down and serotonin increases enough to send messages to other neurotransmitters to help the body wake up for the day.
So, how does lack of sunshine affect all of this?
Although there is enough light to help us wake, if it’s constantly cloudy, appropriate levels of each of these important neurotransmitters don’t quite reach their peak.
This could be why many people, during these cloudy days, report a feeling of “flatness”.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
SAD is a mood disorder that can affect people-generally within the Autumn and Winter months-due to the lack of sunshine.
It’s a condition that results in low mood or depression but with the key difference being that significant improvement is seen once spring and summer return.
Some of the key symptoms of SAD include:
- Feeling depressed
- Low energy/fatigue
- Insomnia or poor sleep
- Difficulty concentrating
- Losing interest in activities
Lack of sunshine is the not the only factor that impacts our mood.
In fact, a lack of the “sunshine vitamin” is another key reason why we often feel gloomy in winter.
What is the sunshine vitamin?
Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin and is essential for our health. It is often referred to as a hormone vitamin because it plays such a vital role within communication.
Vitamin D is a funny old nutrient because, actually, we only get about 10% of it from our food. It’s found in mushrooms, oily fish (like salmon and sardines), and liver. Foods that we don’t tend to consume a lot of.
The rest of our vitamin D comes from being exposed to sunlight – specifically ultraviolet B (UVB) rays.
A biochemical process occurs when UVB penetrates our skin. This biochemical process activates stores of vitamin D we have in our body and converts stored ‘pre’ vitamin D (D2) into ‘pro’ vitamin D (D3)
Pre-vitamin D is stored in fatty tissue or in the liver. When UVB from sunshine hits our skin, the activation of D3 occurs so that vitamin D can be utilised by the many processes in the body including:
- Neurotransmitter (brain) function
- Cardiovascular health
- Immune function
- Bone health
It is now known that a deficiency in the essential Sunshine Vitamin may be linked with any of the following:
- Autoimmune disorders
- Poor immune function
- Arthritis and other inflammatory pain disorders
- Depression, anxiety, bipolar or schizophrenia
- Heart disease
- Chronic fatigue
Why do we need this sunshine vitamin for our mood?
For a long time, vitamin D was mostly associated with bone health. It is well established the role vitamin D plays for helping with calcium absorption for good bone health helping reduce the risk of osteoporosis and rickets.
But in the last decade there has been some great leaps forward into understanding this hormonal role vitamin D has in the body in particular when it comes to the immune system, cardiovascular and brain/mood function.
Researchers have found vitamin D receptor sites located at different parts of the brain involved with cognition (process and thought) and mental illness (fear, mood, behavior).
There’s a lot of growing evidence to support the need to supplement with vitamin D for not only depression but other mood and brain disorder such as dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, Bipolar and Schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
But vitamin D not only helps with neurotransmitter communication, evidence shows that the sunshine vitamin helps to protect the brain by supporting antioxidant processes in the brain as well as support the immune function within the brain protecting against vascular injury.
So… why do we need to supplement vitamin D in winter?
No UVB = No Vitamin D
New Zealand’s winter sun only provides us with about 10% of the UVB light that we need compared to that of summer.
And, generally, these can only be achieved when the sun is at its highest between the hours of 11am and 2pm.
Between these hours we should be outside (in the cold) with our kit off (mostly…not all!) exposing our skin for 20 minutes to get our Vitamin D.
Are you kidding me?
I’m in merino rugged up inside, sitting in the sun (if I can find it), doing my work!
As you can see, it is actually very hard to get our natural dose of sunshine vitamin D in winter, and the further down south you go, the worse it is as there are less sunshine hours compared to the north island.
Vitamin D deficiency in New Zealand
Over the last decade there has been much debate on whether as Kiwi’s we are at risk of Vitamin D deficiency or not.
However, there’s a lot of recent research indicating a very strong risk of deficiency.
When you consider the impact of this important nutrient has within the body, it would make sense to supplement. It is estimated that 1 in 3 Kiwi’s may have vitamin D levels below the recommended level.
Because we can store vitamin D in the body, you may want to consider getting your levels checked first.
But, if you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, supplementation may be helpful.
Supplements essential in winter – regardless of frosty days
Unless you think you are going to start sun worshipping in the middle of winter (brrrrrr) then supplementation is the next best option.
As well as Vitamin D supplementation you may want to help boost your mood by naturally supporting good levels of serotonin.
Herbs and nutrients to increase serotonin
It is well known that some herbs are particularly good at helping to boost serotonin.
In fact, some people use herbs during the winter months specifically for helping them get through the gloom of colder months.