If you’ve ever suffered from seasonal affective disorder, or even sat indoors for a week, staring out at incessant rain, you probably have some intuition that your mood is connected to sunlight. Studies have, in fact, found a correlation between low vitamin D, which is produced in your skin when sunlight shines on it, and depression, as well as several other health problems. A large new study adds convincing evidence linking depression and vitamin D.
The study examined nearly 4000 people over 50 taking part in the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing, or TILDA. Researchers did an initial assessment of the participants, then checked in again at two and four years. By the end of the four years, 400 participants were suffering from depression. The participants who were deficient in vitamin D had a 75 percent higher risk of depression, even when accounting for factors such as chronic diseases and physical activity.
Depression is complicated and can’t be reduced to a single vitamin deficiency, but this study adds further evidence that vitamin D is part of the equation for many people. The size and duration of the study make it especially convincing. As this study was done in people over 50, vitamin D is important for other reasons as well, including bone health, immune function, and reducing inflammation. As older people are at greater risk from broken bones and infections, it’s important for them to get adequate vitamin D anyway. Vitamin D’s role in reducing inflammation may be one reason a deficiency is linked to depression, as recent studies have found a connection between depression and inflammation.
Adequate vitamin D levels can typically be maintained through diet and exposure to sunlight, but as you go farther north, it direct sunlight is scarcer, especially in the winter months. What’s more, if you don’t get out of the house much, you have to rely on dietary sources or supplementation to get enough vitamin D.
It’s a good idea to have your doctor check your vitamin D levels, especially if you’ve been feeling symptoms of depression, which may include sadness, fatigue, loss of interest in things you used to enjoy, sleep disturbance, irritability, changes in appetite, slow movements, poor concentration, and thoughts of death or suicide. If your vitamin D levels are low, your doctor will probably put you on a high dose of vitamin D supplements for several months, then check again. If your levels are adequate, you’ll then switch to a lower dose supplement. Taking high dose supplements on your own without monitoring blood levels can lead to complications such as nausea, stomach cramps, kidney stones and bone spurs.
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