The next couple of months can feel pretty tough as the spring feels a long way off, the severe winter we’ve had feels as though it’s been around for ages and the excitement of Christmas and the new year is nothing but a memory.
The short, dark days can seriously affect your mental health, not just because Jan and Feb are dreary months, the lack of sunlight means that many people in this country are deficient in vitamin D as we make vitamin D when our skin is exposed to sunshine. Low levels of vitamin D are strongly associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which affects many people through the winter months. Symptoms of SAD include depression, sleep disruption, mood swings, weight gain, low libido and lethargy. These symptoms can be mild or very severe.
Government guidelines are changing regarding exposure to sunlight. Although it is never advisable to exposure yourself to strong sunlight without suncreen protection, it is now accepted that it is necessary to expose at least 20% of unprotected (no sunscreen) skin to the sun (not between midday and 3pm in the uk) on a daily basis to generate a healthy dose of vitamin D.
This being the case, where do we get our vitamin D from when there’s no sun for months on end? Vitamin D can be found in certain foods, mainly oily fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines; there’s a little vitamin D in dairy products and some in eggs. Vegans and vegetarians are particularly vulnerable to vitamin D deficiency although few people eat enough vitamin D rich foods to maintain healthy levels throughout the winter.
The solution is to take a vitamin D supplement, certainly throughout the winter months and throughout the year unless you are likely to get at least 20 minutes of sun exposure every day through the spring and summer (not likely in the uk). There are 2 types of vitamin D supplement, D2 and D3. ALWAYS go for D3. This is absorbed and utilised by the body far better than D2 which is a synthetic, cheaper option. Having a daily dose of D3 can significantly lift your mood, increase energy, improve your sleep and help with mental clarity. Vitamin D is also a crucial element in getting calcium in to the bones and recent research had also found vitamin D to be protective against many cancers.
If you take a multi vitamin and mineral supplement check that it contains vitamin D and make sure it is D3 (calciferol). If not, change to one that does. However, most multi vitamins and minerals will only contain about 200 iu of D3 whereas 1000 iu are considered a minimum requirement for healthy weight adults (overweight people need more) throughout the winter. Alternatively, you can get a D3 supplement on its own. Most vitamins and minerals work best when taken in combination with other nutrients so always take your supplements, and D3 in particular, with food and as vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin it needs to be taken with food that contains some fat in order to be utilised properly.