Lack of Sun Affects Your Mood — and Your Health

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Those winter blues you get during cold, dark months when the sun barely seems to shine may not just affect your mood—they may be affecting your health, too.

Although vitamin D is present in a handful of foods, exposure to sunlight enables our bodies to make their own. But northeastern winters complicate the situation, leading to what Dr. Susan Muller, the medical director of Saratoga Family Health Centers, describes as a “rampant problem.”

“Vitamin D is critical to bone and dental health, preventing brittle bones and protecting teeth,” Muller says. But very few of us in this region get enough of it.

Current standards suggest normal vitamin D levels are somewhere between 25 and 80, although Muller says she likes to see people in the 40–50 range. When she started testing patients a decade ago, she found that 9 out of 10 were deficient, a problem she’s been working to fix ever since. If you’re not sure where you’re at, a simple blood panel will show you.

If you are deficient—as many locals here are—counting on your diet to give you what you need isn’t practical. There’s just no easy way to calculate your daily vitamin D intake from foods like salmon, egg yolks, liver and milk. Your best bet is to take a daily supplement, Muller says, in an amount which you and your doctor think will work for you. If you’re active outdoors in the summer, you may only need a supplement to get you through winter.

Muller recommends that kids take a daily supplement of 200–400 IUs, while adults should aim for a supplement around 600 IUs. The elderly need even more to offset a higher risk for osteoporosis, so Muller suggests 800 IUs. Supplements can be prescribed by a doctor or purchased over the counter, and come in chewable and pill form. Everyone should take them, Muller says.

Make sure you discuss it with your doctor first to avoid overdoing it, as consistently high doses in the range of 5,000 to 10,000 IUs can be toxic to some people, leading to nausea, vomiting and even kidney problems.

If you’re looking to get your dose the traditional way, look up.

Fifteen minutes spent in direct sunlight, three times a week, with either face and arms exposed, or arms and legs exposed, should do the trick, Muller says. “That will be enough for most.” Sunblock, however, will counter this effect, so balance is key. Just remember, excessive exposure without sunscreen can lead to skin cancer, so don’t overdo it.