As if our current pandemic situation didn’t keep us inside enough already: Here comes the winter.
Though colder weather can make you think of cozy nights by the fire, snow angels, and holiday lights, the transitioning seasons can also bring out what is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in certain people. A person with this condition would have symptoms similar to depression including weight gain (and an increased appetite for comfort foods like carbs), lethargy, anxiety, difficulty concentrating and irritability. The difference between SAD and typical depression is more about the timing, as SAD will recur at the onset of every winter.
Studies have shown that SAD is common when vitamin D levels are low due to a lack of exposure to sunlight. In a world where many of us have already been working from home for most of the year or stuck inside due to social distancing, it wouldn’t be surprising if SAD hits hard this year because of the lack of soaking in natural vitamin D from the sun.
Why Is Getting Sunlight Important?
When you’re exposed to sunlight, it stimulates the production of vitamin D (hence why it’s called “the sunshine vitamin”). The National Institutes of Health says that most people need at least some sun exposure to meet their vitamin D needs. Vitamin D is particularly important for keeping your calcium levels in check so that it helps maintain the health of your bones, muscles and your teeth. For optimal health, it’s recommended that you supplement with “anywhere from 800 IU to 4,000 IU [of vitamin D], depending on your body weight during the winter,” says Nikola Djordjevic MD, co-founder of LoudCloudHealth.com. During other seasons, “500 IU is enough for most people, especially if there is a regular source of sunlight available,” he says.
SAD is common when vitamin D levels are low due to a lack of exposure to sunlight.
“Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that’s important for metabolism, absorption of nutrients and bone health,” says Gary Goldenberg, M.D., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital. It is also essential for cell growth and repair, your immune system and counteracting damage done by free radicals, he says.
Vitamin D levels can also affect your skin. “Those with normal vitamin D levels will [have] healthier appearing skin than those with a deficiency. The skin will appear more radiant [and] free of blotches,” he says. If you do have a deficiency, Goldenberg says, “the cells are not able to function, divide or protect themselves from free radicals. Skin will look dull, spotty, and people may even develop skin cancer.” Studies show that vitamin D deficiencies were observed in patients with melanoma.
In addition to vitamin D, sunlight helps maintain our internal clock. “It sets our daily rhythm of sleep and awake periods,” explains Dr. Doug Steel, neuroscientist, translational scientist and Brilli Scientific Advisory Board member. Shorter days can naturally bring changes to the body as lower light levels equal higher melatonin (which helps promote sleepiness) and a decrease in serotonin (your body’s natural anti-depressant). Sunlight, therefore, gives us energy and keeps us more vigilant. “Light plays an important role in keeping us alert when doing tasks like driving a car or exercising. Changes in patterns of light exposure during a day, such as provided by changing shadows and the relative colors making up a light source, help keep us from becoming bored and disengaged from our environments,” he says.
Can Happy Lights Fix Your Mood?
While full-spectrum sunlight is the best option, it’s not always available to us — especially in the winter when the days are short and most of us hole up in our homes to avoid frosty weather. Our indoor lights are typically dim and come from low-quality sources such as compact fluorescent bulbs. “Our bodies rely on exposure to high-quality light in order to set our circadian rhythms, prepare us for both sleep and wakefulness at the right times of day, and to elevate our mood by boosting serotonin levels,” explains Dr. Steel.
Using an artificial light source, often referred to as a “happy” light, is a viable way to make up for the loss of sunlight during the winter months. These lights “counteract the psychological issues that arise from sun deprivation in the winter,” says Djordjevic. “[They] help improve mood and energy levels by activating the release of serotonin, which in turn helps regulate your melatonin levels. This leads to improved sleep by making your circadian rhythm operate at a normal level, by simulating daylight during dark winters,” he says. “SAD responds very well to exposure to the right spectrum and intensity of light, and very quickly (in a matter of days) as well,” adds Steel.
With their ability to counteract the physical impact of low sunlight during the winter months, happy lights are beneficial for everyday use. In fact, Djordjevic says it’s “perfectly okay to use a happy light every day without adversely affecting our circadian rhythms.” With that said, sunlight can still exist in the winter months so, when it is out, both Steel and Djordjevic recommend soaking it all in. “Ideally, you should use [happy lights] to supplement natural sunlight,” says Djordjevic. “So switching it on in the afternoon is a good way to maintain an optimal circadian rhythm during the winter,” he adds.
Do Happy Lights Affect Vitamin D?
Though happy lights have a positive effect on combating SAD, they don’t have an impact on vitamin D. The good news is that you can still replenish in the winter if you are deficient. “Twenty minutes of early morning or late afternoon [UV rays are the strongest midday and doctors suggest avoiding the sun during these hours due to risk of skin cancer] should produce enough vitamin D,” says Goldenberg. This doesn’t mean you should skimp on the sunscreen. In fact, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, people who use sunscreen every day can still maintain their vitamin D levels.
Oral supplements are helpful if you’re not able to withstand the cold and winter elements. “Plus, there’s less of a chance of skin cancer, lines and wrinkles,” he adds. “Vitamin D is best absorbed when taken with omega-3 fatty acids.” As for dosage, the Mayo Clinic recommends 600 international units for people aged one to 70, daily. “I regularly recommend vitamin D as part of the normal anti-inflammatory regimen,” Goldenberg adds. When incorporated into your daily skin routine, you get more than just radiant skin (although that is a major plus in our book). “Vitamin D is needed for the proper function of all cells in the human body.” Just check with your health care provider for the best dosage for you and to see if it is okay to incorporate it into your daily routine.
With additional reporting by Drew Carlos
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