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19th February 2020
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The sunshine vitamin

Posted 03/07/2012 by sevans

It isn’t just the rain that’s wrong with the current British summer; all this gloomy damp weather could also be affecting our health. As a reasonably ‘outdoorsy’ person, I was surprised to be recently diagnosed as lacking in vitamin D – rectified by a course of high strength tablets bought over the counter at a pharmacy. Doing a bit of research on the topic, however, it would appear that I am far from alone. Vitamin D deficiency, according to my GP, is more common even than a lack of iron, which is increasingly deficient particularly in younger women who often skip breakfast or don’t eat a lot of red meat.

Vitamin D plays an essential role in regulating the amount of calcium and phosphorus in the blood and a lack of it weakens the immune system, leaving us prone to coughs and colds. It also causes cognitive problems (an excuse maybe for my poor memory), loss of bone strength, and is even linked to depression. In humans, vitamin D is apparently novel because it can be ingested in foods such as eggs, milk and fish as cholecalciferol (vitamin D3) or ergocalciferol (vitamin D2) – and the body can also synthesise it via the skin – provided, that is, you get enough sunshine.

While there’s little worry about overdosing on sunshine this summer, concerns about the cancer risks posed by sun exposure have led to a tendency to slap on the sunscreen whenever there’s a risk of harm. But blocking out the sun’s rays entirely, researchers are now finding, isn’t such a good idea.

In recent work presented at The Endocrine Society’s annual meeting in Houston, Texas, US, at the end of June, researchers reported that women with moderate to severe depression showed substantial improvement in their symptoms after receiving treatment for their vitamin D deficiency. One woman’s depression score – as rated via a 21-item questionnaire – improved from 32 before vitamin D therapy to 12, a change from severe to mild depression, while another woman’s fell from 26 to 8 – now indicating only minimal symptoms of depression. 

‘Screening at-risk depressed patients for vitamin D deficiency and treating it appropriately may be an easy and cost-effective adjunct to mainstream therapies for depression,’ according to Sonal Pathak MD, an endocrinologist at Bayhealth Medical Center in Dover, US. 

So that is another good reason for wanting some respite from all this rain. Bring on the sunshine!

Cath O’Driscoll – Deputy editor

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