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Are You Lacking in the “Sunshine” Vitamin?

Do you feel tired, achy and depressed every winter? It could be that you’re not getting enough vitamin D. Researchers estimate that as many as half of all adults are at risk for this deficiency. Many Americans feel they aren't at risk because they consume vitamin D fortified foods, like milk, but very few foods have natural vitamin D in therapeutic levels and even fortified foods don’t contain enough of the vitamin to support all your health needs.

Despite its name, vitamin D is not a regular vitamin, but a steroid with hormone-like activity. Vitamin D is essential to growth and development and performs a host of actions, including helping to regulate the function of over 200 genes, promoting calcium absorption, maintaining normal calcium and phosphate levels, promoting bone and cell growth, and reducing inflammation.

As much as 90% of vitamin D is produced by sun exposure, so adults who have limited time outdoors (as many do in the winter) or who consistently wear sun protection may not be getting enough. Also at risk are individuals who have darkly pigmented skin, those who are obese, breastfeeding, or elderly, and those with certain medical conditions, like Crohn’s or IBS, that make it difficult to process and/or utilize vitamin D.

Vitamin D deficiency doesn’t always cause symptoms; sometimes issues won’t appear until levels get very low or have been low for some time. However, there are some symptoms you might notice. If any of these apply to you, see your doctor to have your levels checked with a simple blood test:

Chronic aches and pains. This classic sign of low vitamin D can sometimes be misdiagnosed as fibromyalgia.

Feeling depressed or ‘blue.’
Studies have shown that people with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 11 times more likely to be seasonally depressed.

Unexplained fatigue. Research shows that low vitamin D is often a problem in patients with fatigue and that normalization of vitamin D levels through supplementation significantly improves the severity of their fatigue. 

Difficulty thinking clearly. In studies, individuals with low vitamin D levels generally performed much worse on cognitive performance tests than their non-deficient counterparts.

Head sweating. A sweaty head is a common early symptom of vitamin D deficiency, especially in infants.

Boosting Your Vitamin D Levels
You can help to ensure adequate vitamin D levels by increasing your sun exposure in a sensible way, going outdoors for 10-30 minutes daily, especially between late morning and early afternoon. This produces vitamin D that may last twice as long in the body as vitamin D from supplements. If you can’t get outside, consider investing in a good quality light box that supplies 10,000 lux of full-spectrum light for 30 minutes every morning.

For many people, supplementation is the easiest, safest, and most effective way to get one’s vitamin D level within a normal range (50-100ng/mL). Adults can take vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) in regular capsule form at levels between 1000 IU and 5000 IU daily but should speak to their provider before doing so.

Rhiannon Doherty, MS APRN is a psychiatric Nurse Practitioner practicing at Day Kimball Hospital - Behavioral Health. She is also the author of the Beyond the Brain blog at and a clinical editor for online nursing education modules.


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