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Natural Awakenings New York City

Good morning sunshine! Serotonin, Vitamin D & SAD

Like all living things, we need the sun. For millions of years, humans have spent many hours out in the sun each day.  In the same way that plants harness the sun's rays through photosynthesis, our bodies use sunlight to help the skin produce the vitamin D it needs to build bones, bolster the immune system and even protect against cancer (including skin cancer).  

In today’s modern world, most people have lifestyles that deny them sunshine therefore preventing them from acquiring the levels of vitamin D that evolution intended us to have. The sun’s ultraviolet-B rays absorbed through the skin are the body’s main source of this nutrient. “As a species, we do not get as much sun exposure as we used to, and dietary sources of vitamin D are minimal,” Dr. Edward Giovannucci, nutrition researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health, wrote in The Archives of Internal Medicine.[1]

In the past few years, numerous studies have shown that optimizing your vitamin D levels may actually help prevent as many as 16 different types of cancer including pancreatic, lung, breast, ovarian, prostate and colon cancers. There is even evidence that Vitamin D protects against colds, flu and viral infections.[2]  Yet despite our knowledge of the many benefits of Vitamin D, we live in a culture that has grown to demonize the sun, and hence are facing the consequences of an increase in Vitamin D deficiency.

Industrialization of today’s world has greatly contributed to widespread vitamin D deficiency. Whereas humans used to spend many hours outside every day working in fields, on farms, and (pre-agricultural revolution) hunting and foraging for food; the majority of people in today’s world work and recreate mostly indoors. Technology has cast a system in which we spend most of our times commuting in vehicles to work in either offices or enclosed spaces, then spending our leisure time in either in shopping malls, movie theaters, bars, restaurants, or in our own homes in front of the television or computer screens.

Studies show that as many as three out of four Americans suffer from Vitamin D deficiency. A study published in 2009 in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that 70 percent of Caucasians, 90 percent of Hispanics and 97 percent of African Americans in the US have insufficient blood levels of vitamin D.  Traditionally, vitamin D has been viewed by researchers and physicians as functioning mainly to maintain bone density and prevent bone loss. Bone-softening diseases that have been attributed to vitamin D deficiency include osteomalacia, osteopenia, and osteoporosis in adult patients.  Consequently, emerging research suggests that the presence of vitamin D contributes to the overall health of other body systems, including the immune system, the autoimmune system, the cardiovascular system, and the integumentary system.[3]

Vitamin D deficiency can also lead to other conditions su

ch as “Seasonal Affective Disorder” (SAD) and insomnia.  SAD is a situational mood disorder brought on by diminishing daylight in the fall and winter months. High doses of vitamin D during these months have proven to be a very effective natural remedy for SAD, leading most practitioners to believe that normal neurotransmitter function depends in part on adequate vitamin D synthesis. Vitamin D levels are inversely related to those of melatonin, a mood-regulating hormone. Melatonin helps temper your circadian rhythms, with darkness triggering melatonin secretion by the pineal gland within your brain, helping to promote a healthy night’s sleep.  Melatonin influences insomnia, mood swings and even food cravings. Sunlight shuts melatonin production off, while triggering release of vitamin D — that’s why doctors recommend getting outdoors as a remedy for jet lag.[4]

The effect of sunlight, Vitamin D and Serotonin in winter are intrinsically connected.  Serotonin synthesis is hypothesized to be dependent on the duration of bright light exposure the previous summer. When we wake up and wear our sun glasses first thing in the morning, it changes our of natural day light input, hence interfering with our circadian rhythm. Try to soak in the morning sun and where your sunglasses after 10am.

But... don't get too excited and overdose on the sunshine! You can get a sunburn at ANY time of year, not just the summer months. If you are heading out to soak up some early rays, protect your skin with a light sunscreen, like SPF 15 -- especially if you are fair skinned or burn easily! Otherwise, exposing yourself to too much sun can lead you down the road to skin cancer.