Did you know that about 5% of the U.S. population becomes so impaired every winter they meet the criteria for SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)? That’s depressing. And did you know that women are more likely to experience SAD than men? In some cases, three to four times more likely, especially women in their 20s and 30s. Doubly depressing.
Shorter days and longer nights mean even less exposure to sunshine, and experts say this is what regulates our circadian rhythms, which are physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a roughly 24-hour cycle, according to the National Institutes of Health. People with seasonal depression might just be slow to adjust to timing changes, but they might also be low in vitamin D, a super-common problem that results from lack of sun exposure, among other factors, including poor diet.
What Happens When You Don’t Get Enough Vitamin D?
Well, lots of stuff, but mainly general fatigue and depression.
That’s because vitamin D “is in a class by itself, behaving more like a hormone,” explains CB expert Dr. Frank Lipman, who focuses on integrative and functional medicine. “It’s necessary for numerous cellular functions, and when the body does not have what it needs to function optimally, it follows that we experience a decline in health. We know that almost every cell and tissue in our body has vitamin D receptors.”
According to CB expert Dr. Frank Lipman, almost everyone is vitamin D deficient. In fact, 80% of his patients are. Dr. Lipman and other CB experts, including medical herbalist Daniela Turley, say one of the most vital changes you can make in the winter is upping your vitamin D intake.
Where Can You Get It?
1. Here’s the thing: from the sun.
Dr. Michael Holick is author of The Vitamin D Solution and professor of medicine, physiology, and biophysics at Boston University Medical Center. He advises “sensible sun exposure” of 15 to 30 minutes in direct sunlight each day without sunscreen on. Obviously, don’t get sunburnt, and apply sunscreen to your hands on face, which will always be the most sun exposed parts of your body. If your skin is darker or lighter, these numbers could change—Holick’s book has a table with recommended exposure times. Seems a little crazy for people who were raised on a strict hat, shawl, and sunscreen program, but Dr. Lipman agrees. “Have a healthy respect for the sun,” he says. “Treat it like medication, using the lowest dose necessary, but don’t avoid it completely.”
2. But it’s winter! I’m not standing outside with anything exposed.
Good point. This time of year, a supplement is your best best. Medical herbalist Daniela Turley recommends 5,0000 IU of vitamin D throughout the winter months. Try her favorite: Thorne Research Vitamin D/K2 Liquid, $24. A note: this isn’t the kind of thing where you should just double-dose for more benefits—if you’re taking more than 5,000 IUs daily, you should get your levels checked every three months in the doctor’s office.
Unless you want to drink six glasses of milk and two servings of salmon, it’s impossible to get adequate vitamin D from your diet alone, according to Dr. Holick. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t optimize your intake—a good piece of advice is to take your supplement with a meal that contains fat, because vitamin D is fat-soluble: avocado, fish, or nuts are good bets.
The best sources of vitamin D:
Fatty fish—salmon, trout, mackerel, tuna, and eel (sushi!)
Mushrooms—weirdly, just like humans, mushrooms have the capacity to produce vitamin D when exposed to ultraviolet light. Yes, most mushrooms are grown in the dark, but keep your eyes peeled for mushrooms labeled otherwise. This can be a good alternative for vegans or vegetarians.
Eggs—since the vitamin D in an egg comes from its yolk, it’s important to use the whole egg—not just the whites. One yolk will give you about 40 IUs, but don’t eat a dozen eggs a day (obviously).
Milk—these days, milk of all kinds, from almond to cow, are fortified with vitamin D. In general, an 8 ounce glass of milk contains at least 100 IUs of vitamin D, and a 6 ounce yogurt contains 80. Have some with your vitamin D-enriched cereal in the morning for a one-two punch.
4. Topically? Sort of.
CB expert dermatologist Dr. Dennis Gross says, “Having sufficient vitamin D in the skin helps minimize acne, boost elasticity, stimulate collagen production, enhance radiance, and lessen lines and the appearance of dark spots.” We know vitamin D is the miracle cure, but can it be absorbed through the skin?
Dr. Gross began to see vitamin deficiencies in his patients as a result of avoiding the sun and wearing daily sunscreens, so he developed a serum that contains vitamin D, and has seen positive results with his patients. Dr. Dennis Gross Active Vitamin D Serum Oil, $65, contains an active form of D that Dr. Gross says provides the skin (not the body) with sufficient levels of vitamin D through topical application. Other products with Vitamin D that we recommend: Dr. Brandt’s Power Dose D, $55 and One Love Organics Vitamin D Moisture Mist, $39.
One Last Thing: What’s The Deal With Vitamin D Toxicity?
It is impossible to generate too much vitamin D in your body from sunlight exposure: your body will self-regulate and only generate what it needs. Although very rare, it is possible to overdose and become toxic with supplementation as vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin and therefore stored in the body for longer periods of time. Therefore if you are taking 5,000 IU or more daily, you should have your blood levels monitored approximately every 3 months.