Most people hear Vitamin D and think of it as the “Sunshine Vitamin” or the vitamin that helps make our bones strong. Very few would think it’s the vitamin our brains need to function, as Vitamin D plays a major role in our cognitive health. In the recent years, there have been many studies linking deficiency of this vitamin to depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.
Within our brains, Vitamin D is thought to play roles in many different pathways. Everyday we are finding out new ways the brain is benefited from Vitamin D. Some of the ways we do know its working within the brain include: activating receptors in regions of your brain that regulate behavior, stimulating the release of proteins (called neurotrophins) that help send signals within the brain (and keeps those pathways healthy and firing), and protecting the brain by managing antioxidant and anti-inflammatory defenses against injury. It has been thought that those suffering from depression could be lacking a specific neurotrophin, and that could be what increases depressive symptoms. Vitamin D can increase the lack of neurotrophins, and help ensure signals are not being interrupted, thus, decreasing depressive symptoms.
We now see how this vitamin is vital, yet it is thought that about 1 billion people worldwide have a Vitamin D deficiency – and 50% have Vitamin D insufficiency. We’ve heard about Vitamin D our entire lives, so how are we deficient? There’s a few reasons this could be happening.
Vitamin D is not commonly found in food sources, so approximately 70-90% of our Vitamin D comes from the sun. As we absorb it into our skin, it travels to the liver, and eventually to the kidneys. This is where it is finally put into its active form, and can be taken to different parts of the body to be utilized. So, if we get it from the sun, what could be limiting our Vitamin D intake? A few different things, in fact. The first is sunscreen. The risk of skin cancer is real, so the majority of people are either covering their skin when outside, or loading up on sunscreen. Sunscreen blocks 97% of the potential absorption of Vitamin D! The second reason is dependent on where you live. If you live in the northern parts of the country, you may not be outside as much because of the temperature, and where the sun is located. The last two reasons for lower absorption is having more melanin in your skin, and wearing clothing that covers the majority of your skin for religious reasons.
After reading that, and knowing how important it is, you might be asking: “Then how do I get enough Vitamin D while still protecting my skin?” It may seem grim, but there are definitely ways you can begin to increase your Vitamin D intake. If you are able, try to get at least 10-15 minutes of unblocked sun-exposure, without sunscreen, so you can ensure your body is able to absorb what it needs – then get that sunscreen on!
Additionally, start introducing foods that are a natural source of Vitamin D, such as:
-Wild caught salmon (farm raised does NOT have as much vitamin D as wild)
-Cod liver oil
You can also start buying foods that have been fortified with Vitamin D, or work with your doctor or dietitian/ nutrition professional to figure out if a supplement would be right for you. Supplements are a great way to get the additional amounts your body needs, especially if you live in the northern parts of the country, have darker skin, don’t eat the foods that have naturally occurring Vitamin D, or are suffering from anxiety and depression. Make sure you are getting the most bioactive form. There are different types of Vitamin D available in supplement form, so make sure to look for Cholecalciferol (D3) as opposed to Ergocalciferol (D2). The recommended amount of Vitamin D for mental and overall health is much higher than the normal recommendation. The current recommendation for mental health is around 2000 IU/day. If you are extremely deficient, your doctor or dietitian may recommend even more than that and it is completely safe for your body to tolerate and may even need. The one caveat is -supplements can be tricky so it’s really important to work with someone who is versed to help choose the right one.
Vitamin D is so much more than the “sunshine vitamin” it is vital to so much of our overall health but primarily our mental health. So, get outside get some sunshine, eat some wild salmon and let that Vitamin D begin helping you feel better!
Amanda Kozimor-Perrin is a Registered Dietitian and has her Masters of Science in nutrition. She is currently located in Los Angeles, CA, meets with clients individually, and co-hosts the podcasts “Quarter Life Crisis” and “Yep. I Did That.” Her focus is how food can transform our health, while remembering we are all made up differently – so how we eat should reflect that. She believes in living an 80/20 lifestyle, eating the rainbow, and sometimes you just need that cookie. Connect with Amanda through her website or on instagram: @purelyperrin