Feeling down? Try sunning away your blues

Depression is a mental disorder where extreme feelings of sadness persist for many months or years.

It is different from the feelings of sadness that we all feel from time to time.

People who are depressed feel perpetually low and have low self-esteem.

They lose interest in activities they once enjoyed and tend to withdraw from others, unable to shake their feelings of hopelessness and despair.

A number of studies have reported some connection between vitamin D levels and the risk of depression.

Low vitamin D levels may be related to depression, rather than contributing to the disorder.

Therefore if you are depressed, ensure you have sufficient amounts of vitamin D in your body.

However, when we go out into the sun, most of us tend to slab on sunscreen to protect against skin cancer and other forms of skin damages that can interfere with the skin's production of vitamin D.

A mere SPF-8 sunscreen cuts vitamin D3 production by about 90 per cent, while an SPF-30 cuts off a whopping 99 per cent.

What would be advisable is to wear a wide brimmed hat and a pair of sunglasses to cover your face while exposing as much of your body parts as possible to the sun for at least 20-30 minutes between 10am and 2pm to ensure maximum production of vitamin D3.

If you are unable to do this, it is then advisable to take a vitamin D3 supplement.

Risk factors for depression

Although the precise cause of depression isn't known, researchers have identified certain factors that seem to increase the risk of developing or triggering depression, including:

Experiencing stressful life events, such as the death of a loved one.

Having biological relatives with depression.

Being a woman.

Having traumatic experiences as a child.

Having family members or friends who have been depressed.

Having few friends or other personal relationships.

Recently having given birth (postpartum depression).

Having been depressed previously.

Having a serious illness, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer's or HIV/AIDS.

Having certain personality traits, such as low self-esteem and being overly dependent, self-critical or pessimistic.

Abusing alcohol, nicotine or illicit drugs.

Taking certain high blood pressure medications, sleeping pills or certain other medications (Talk to your doctor before stopping any medication you think could be affecting your mood.)

There are no reported studies showing that vitamin D supplements reduce the risk of depression.

However, given the evidence, it is possible that vitamin D could have a positive effect on those who suffer from depression.

Overcoming vitamin D deficiency

According to a recent review, treating vitamin D deficiency in people with depression or other mental disorders may result in improvement in both long-term health and quality of life.

Reports confirm that vitamin D has a positive effect on depression:

Women in Washington State increased their vitamin D levels to 47 ng/mL (118 nmol/L) by taking 5000 IU of vitamin D each day during the winter.

In some of these women, their depressive symptoms lessened as indicated by the decrease in their scores on a depression test.

Overweight and obese Norwegian women took 20,000 or 40,000 IU per week of vitamin D and their symptoms of depression decreased.

Their scores were also lower on a depression test.

Based on studies of other diseases, vitamin D blood levels of 40-50 ng/mL (100-125 nmol/L) appear to reduce the severity of depression.

The connection between vitamin D and depression is not new.

In 2006, scientists evaluated the effects of vitamin D on the mental health of 80 elderly patients and found that those with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 11 times more prone to be depressed than those who received healthy doses.

In a current study, researchers found that intake of more than 400 IU of vitamin D from food sources was associated with a 20 per cent lower risk of depressive symptoms compared with intake of less than 100 IU.

This was a significant benefit from a very small amount of vitamin D as 400 IU is far too low to benefit most people.

It's likely that vitamin D fights depression via several pathways, not only directly in your brain, but also via inflammation.

Vitamin D receptors have been identified throughout the human body, and that includes the brain.

Sufficient vitamin D is also vital for proper functioning of the immune system to combat inflammation, and other research has discovered that depressed people tend to have higher levels of inflammation in their brains.

Affecting serotonin levels

People who don't have enough vitamin D tend to become more depressed in winter, when sunlight, which stimulates the body to produce the vitamin, is limited.

This condition is called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.

This may occur because vitamin D is needed to maintain adequate serotonin levels in the brain, according to some researchers.

Many antidepressant drugs work the same way!

Vitamin D can be found in fish and eggs and is generally added to breakfast cereals, milk and milk products, but many doctors still recommend taking a vitamin D supplement.

In November 2010, The Institute of Medicine (IOM) proposed that the current RDA for vitamin D3 be increased from 400I.U. to 600I.U.

Even this amount is way too low, according to the IOS (International Orthomolecular Society) in Canada, an organisation that specialises in researching nutritional medicine.

They reported that vitamin D level recommendations by the US government are way too low to prevent some basic health problems.

The organisation, made up of medical doctors, is one of the most credible sources for information on nutritional medicine.

The Canadian Paediatric Society's 2007 guidelines dosage recommendation is 2,000 I.U. a day.

The safety limit is much higher than commonly believed. Based on the latest evidence, it is determined that 10,000 I.U. a day is non-toxic.

After all, your body can easily make 20,000 I.U. after 30 minutes at the beach between 10am and 2pm by exposing as much skin as possible (without sunscreen).

Published cases of toxicity, for which serum levels and dose are known, all involve intake of more than 40,000 I.U. (1000 mcg) per day.

Many health experts recommend 1,000 I.U. to 2,000 I.U. of vitamin D3 supplement a day for the prevention of many heart-related conditions.

Hence, people are at far greater risk of vitamin D deficiency than they are of vitamin D toxicity.

When taking a vitamin D supplement, try to choose a supplement made with natural vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol).

Vitamin D3 (400 i.u.) tablets can be bought at all leading chain and independent pharmacies nationwide.

Apart from optimising your vitamin D3 levels to overcome depression, everyone with depression should also be exercising regularly.

When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins which trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine.

For example, the feeling that follows a run or workout is often described as "euphoric".

That feeling, known as a "runner's high", can be accompanied by a positive and energising outlook on life.