One of the most overlooked, yet crucially impactful influences on our well-being is vitamin D. Many people who move from warmer climates experience the emotional, physical and social effects of insufficient winter sunshine. In fact, the term “snowbird” is a nickname for dark-eyed juncos as well as individuals who migrate to southern regions to chase the sun during the colder months. Common destinations include the Sun Belt of the United States as well as havens in Mexico or the Caribbean. Much like birds, human snowbirds then return to their homes in the North to enjoy the consistent sunshine and heat. This practice is much more financially feasible for some than for others, so it is imperative that those unable to keep their shorts and flip-flops on year-round learn how to maintain healthy levels of vitamin D when the sun is a sight for sore eyes.
The Many Functions of Vitamin D
Vitamin D is one of the most important vitamins in the human body for healthy long-term function. Calcium and phosphate, two elements necessary for bone and muscle health (including one’s teeth and tongue), are regulated by vitamin D. Between the spring and fall equinoxes, simply being outside and feeling the warmth of sunlight on one’s skin is enough for the body to produce enough vitamin D.
Another invaluable function of vitamin D is the maintenance of the nervous system and the immune system, both of which are instrumental in fighting infections and common seasonal sicknesses. Because vitamin D supports the immune system, maintaining appropriate levels is even more crucial during winter months. Vitamin D also reduces bodily inflammation, which is exacerbated by infections, illness and common chronic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. Additionally, studies show that GI or stomach health is heavily influenced by vitamin D levels because vitamin D “increases the number and diversity of microbes living in the gut.”
Causes of a Vitamin D Deficiency
There are several causes for low or insufficient vitamin D levels. One is protective measures against UV rays such as sunscreen and added clothing. Others include the pigmentation of one’s skin as well as limited sun exposure. Consequently “fair-skinned individuals living in the northern regions of the United States” are more likely to experience insufficient levels of the essential vitamin. This is also true for individuals outside of the U.S. “at higher latitudes around the globe.” It is important to note that individuals with darker pigmentation are even more at risk for vitamin D deficiency than those with lighter pigmentation if they live at high latitudes. Skin pigmentation is an important factor because “darker skin blocks the UVB rays from producing vitamin D.”
Symptoms of a Vitamin D Deficiency
It is estimated that about 35% of American adults could use more vitamin D. Given its vital role in the body, a deficiency can lead to serious mental and physical health issues. In severe cases, an individual may experience mood changes, fatigue, muscle cramps or weaknesses. These symptoms, along with bone and joint pain, can be indicative of a vitamin D deficiency.
Furthermore, studies show that insufficient levels of the “sunshine vitamin” increase one’s risk of developing seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD, which is a type of depression, affects up to 10% of Americans during the winter months. Individuals experiencing SAD feel more tired and “low” starting in the fall months.
Ways To Improve or Sustain Vitamin D Levels
To combat the effects of SAD , there are a multitude of different treatment options such as phototherapy as well as conventional treatment options for mood disorders like psychotherapy and medication. The most obvious and accessible method to combat SAD is to soak up as much natural sunlight as possible. Another method is to consume foods that are rich in vitamin D, such as red meat, liver, egg yolks, fortified foods (e.g., breakfast cereals) and “oily fish.” For those with dietary restrictions there are also plenty of over-the-counter supplements available. One must be careful, however, not to develop vitamin D toxicity (the standard amount recommended by the U.S. government is 400-800 international units per day, depending on age). Symptoms of vitamin D toxicity include “bone pain, kidney stones, and vomiting.” Consulting a health professional beforehand is the best way to make sure you are optimizing your vitamin D levels.