Depressed or Just Deficient in Vitamin D?

Blog sun Vit D iStock_000001896064XSmall
Think of sun.  Warm and bright.  Now think of darkness.  Cold and sightless.  Which do you associate most with happiness?  Which would you associate most with depression?

Cold and dark don’t exactly inspire a good mood.  The same goes for a family that loves unconditionally (warm, open, loving and feels like basking in sunlight) versus a household with rigid rules (cold, limiting, sharp, and feels like a dark night)—one is associated with a “happy” childhood, and the other one is, well, why we’re here.

In November I wrote a couple posts comparing chronic depression (Dysthymia) to simply being adult children—as both share depression-like characteristics.  Some of the shared characteristics of being an adult child–whether of alcoholics, workaholics, or other types of child-like parents–and being chronically depressed are: low self-esteem, indecision, trouble sleeping, sadness that’s difficult to shake, a sense of loneliness and a tendency to isolate, and “coping” type behaviors, like overeating or compulsions. Here’s where I compared being an ACA to being depressed.  Here’s where I wrote about chronic depression.

But there are other sources, or rather, contributing factors, to depression—like imbalances in the body. Like depleted vitamins

My therapist wondered if I might be mildly depressed (he thought maybe Dysthymia).  (As I learn more about PTSD, I think that might be part of it.)  But no official diagnosis has been established.  But he suggested that I make an appointment with my primary care doctor for a complete physical. Who knows?  Maybe something systemic–a lazy thyroid or something–might be contributing to my anxiety and melancholy.  That struck me as sound advice.  And I got checked out.  (Part of growing up as an adult child, of course, is learning to get into the habit of regular, preventative medical care–and believing we’re worth taking care of our bodies and systems. We can take care of ourselves, even if our parents didn’t take us to the doctor when they should have or teach us how to think about doctor’s visits and check-ups!)

Well!  The complete physical turned up a Vitamin D deficiency.

A Vitamin D deficiency can trigger, or lead to, depression. If a person is really deficient, this could mean feeling blue as well as having a difficult time making decisions, bouts of low self-esteem, trouble sleeping (either too much or having a hard time staying asleep), appetite issues (overeating, not eating), sadness that can’t be shrugged off (and in the case of SAD feels directly related to the weather outside), recurring aches and pains, feelings of dread, of loneliness and a tendency to isolate, and sometimes compulsiveness (OCD).

It wouldn’t surprise me if adult children—who don’t know how to relax—would be more likely to be deficient in Vitamin D than other people.  It’s hard for us to relax and have fun and to take time for ourselves, and in order to sit in the sun for 15 minutes a few times a week, we have to risk a lot.  We likely feel we’re risking being “lazy.”  Or, worse—selfish.

If you’ve ever thought you might have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), because you feel the grip of sadness at the very first signs of winter (like you can’t truly enjoy fall because of the season that follows it), you might consider reading up on both SAD and Vitamin D deficiency, and getting a blood test from your doctor. (Do you remember spending much time soaking up sunlight last summer, or were you busy-busy-busy, inside your office building, sitting in a car, or slathered in sunscreen? If you were protected, you weren’t beefing up your Vitamin D stores.)

Here’s some information about Seasonal Affective Disorder, and information about Vitamin D  (although, if you choose to read about Vitamin D, you will quickly realize that no one truly agrees on the benefits of supplements.)  And here is a great, comprehensive New York Times article about supplements, herbs, and activities that can combat SAD.

Let’s say you go to the doc and get a blood test.  Depending on which experts’ opinions you trust, anything below 30 nanograms per milliliter of blood is “deficient.”

(I scored a 19.)

Here’s the chart that came in the letter from my doctor’s office:

< 10 ng/ml = Severe Deficiency

10 – 20 ng/ml = Deficiency  *Where I scored

20 – 32 ng/ml = Insufficiency

32 – 50 Mid-Normal

50 – 100 ng/ml = High Normal

It’s been two weeks since I got the letter.  I’ve done some reading.  I usually feel calmer after collecting data, but that wasn’t the case here.  Time-tested data and helpful conclusions about Vitamin D are, at best, conflicting.  Research into Vitamin D is spotty, and just—very new. But Vitamin D is getting more attention because it’s clear that it’s a really important component of health, just not well understood (and I have to assume that many of the groups funding research have motives–like to manufacture supplements). Here is a link to the wacky, opinionated Vitamin D Council website and brief summaries of various studies done on Vitamin D deficiency-related depression.)

One interesting fact:  recently, the guidelines for “normal” blood levels of Vitamin D were increased (the chart above reflects the new guidelines); previously you were only deficient if you measured 20 nanograms per milliliter of blood.  Now, with the new guidelines, we’re suddenly a nation deficient in Vitamin D—at epidemic levels!  (By the old standards, my measurements would have been “nearly normal.”  (That’s a familiar diagnosis.))

What’s to be done?

I was prescribed a mega-dose of Vitamin D.  I’m taking one pill weekly, which gives me several times the recommended daily allowance.  (A recent NPR program about Vitamin D suggests that up to 4,000 IUs a day is likely “okay” for mega-doses, but 200-400 IUs daily is the ideal amount we should get from food and sunshine; my doctor prescribed a pill that provides me with 7,000 IUs daily, adjusted for a seven day week, which I am to continue taking for four months.)

I’ll admit I’d rather get a prescription for a week or two in Hawaii or South America, to get my body closer to the sun. No pill is a substitute for the real deal; ideally, we get our Vitamin D from absorbing sunlight.  Enough, even, to carry us through the dark winter months.  (“Dark winter,” and yet I live in northern California.)

The average amount of sunlight that we need, if our stores are “full” already, is just 15 minutes of sunshine in the afternoon, 3 times a week.  We’re not talking about sand, towel, and bathing suits.  We’re talking just-walk-outside and get it, easy stuff—short-sleeved shirts, shorts or rolled-up pants, and bare faces on a park or city bench.  This must be without sunblock, without cloudy skies, and ideally involves arms and legs as well as the face—the more of your surface that the sun touches, the greater the absorption.

Vitamin D can be absorbed from some foods, too:  dark fish, oysters, mushrooms, fortified foods and milk, cheese, butter, and cream can provide some Vitamin D.  Sardines are an ideal source (small fish means very little mercury.)

Are you thinking what I first thought? “Sunshine—I knew I felt good in it!”  And now we’ve got permission—doctor’s orders—to go bask in it.

Well, for fifteen minutes at a time.

That is, as soon as spring comes.

For now, there’s the doctor to visit.



  1. I’m going to look into that blood test! And take my son for more afternoon walks.
    As long as I can remember I get depressed at the onset of fall – despite living in sunny Arizona. Perhaps a vitamin D deficiency is part of the problem.
    Correcting a slow thyroid has help my SAD tremendously. I recently started adding Vitamin B which has really helped my energy levels.

  2. amy eden says:

    YES! In my readings about a depression+Vitamin D link, I came across information about vitamin combos that can help with SAD, and B vitamins were always there. (I’ll post a link to one of those articles now.)
    Love the idea of afternoon walks with your son…nurturing for the both of you. :-)

Leave a Reply