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Shedding Light on Vitamin D: How it Impacts Women's Mental Health



Did you know that around 840 million people are affected by depression, and women are twice as likely to experience it compared to men? Have you ever wondered why this is the case?


We have our lovely female sex hormones, progesterone and estrogen, to thank for a big part of that. Throughout our lives, we experience hormonal fluctuations specifically during big life changes such as puberty, pregnancy, and menopause, as well as in cases of hormonal disorders like PCOS. Additionally, our hormones are influenced by factors such as diet, stress, lifestyle, physical activity, sleep and more!


And for those of us who are not on hormonal contraception also experience hormone fluctuations every month due to our menstrual cycle.  Our hormones put us at a greater risk for depression and other mental health disorders, but maybe there is more in our control than we think - cue vitamin D!


The study I am currently reviewing undertook a comparative analysis of 36 previous studies, revealing that 26 of them exhibited a negative correlation between individual vitamin D levels and depression in women. It was observed that lower levels of vitamin D were linked to higher rates of depression.


Although the study did not provide a formal summary of all 26 studies, I've gathered insights into some of the populations they considered. The research looked at a variety of populations including healthy women aged between 18-60 years, women with type 2 diabetes, perimenopausal and postmenopausal women, postpartum women, and a few groups of younger college students. A wide range of participants, indeed.


Nevertheless, each of these studies demonstrated that vitamin D deficiency was associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, stress, decreased mood, difficulty sleeping, and overall poorer mental health. Encouragingly, these mental health symptoms were found to improve with enhanced vitamin D levels through sunlight exposure, supplementation, and dietary modifications.


It's worth noting that among the groups studied, a wide range of vitamin D deficiencies were present, with pregnant women being particularly susceptible. If you are currently pregnant, I strongly advise testing your vitamin D levels, but more on this later!


While vitamin D is commonly associated with sunlight exposure, this study highlights that several other factors contribute to deficiency. These include inadequate sunlight exposure, poor living conditions, geographic location (especially for us New Englanders), and suboptimal dietary intake. Hence, improving vitamin D levels may not be as simple as taking a brief stroll outside.


One study that piqued my interest (unsurprisingly, it was about the menstrual cycle) assessed almost a thousand women aged 18 to 60. The results showed that higher vitamin D intake and blood levels were associated with improved PMS symptoms such as bloating, cramping, headaches, and dysmenorrhea (painful periods). This finding highlights the considerable role vitamin D plays in our bodies. If you're interested in reading this particular study, I have linked it HERE.


Now, I'm not advocating for a rush to supplement stores, but rather for raising awareness of the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in the female population.


Here are my recommendations on what to do:


Step 1: Talk with your doctor


While it's probable that most women are suffering from vitamin D deficiency, overloading on supplements without knowing your exact vitamin D levels is not recommended. As such, it's advisable to discuss this matter with your physician and request they include a vitamin D test in your next blood panel.


Outlined below are typical ranges; however, these may vary based on your geographic location and the specific test conducted. These guidelines serve as general reference points:

Vitamin D Status

Blood Level Ranges

Normal

25-80 ng/ml

Moderate Deficiency 

10-24 ng/ml

Severe Deficiency

<10 ng/ml

Possibly Toxicity 

>80 ng/ml


It's critical to highlight that if you're dealing with a severe deficiency, you may require a more rigorous vitamin D supplementation plan. In such cases, it's advisable to consult with a doctor and dietitian for guidance on how to restore your vitamin D levels to normal.


Step 2: Natural Sources


Naturally, as a dietitian, I strongly advocate for natural means of acquiring vitamins. It's advisable to spend time outdoors for 10-30 minutes (depending on your location) with some skin exposure, as sunblock can hinder vitamin D absorption. Additionally, incorporating fatty fish such as salmon and milk/milk products (or vitamin D-fortified milk alternatives) in your diet can enhance vitamin D intake. However, these sources may not always suffice, and that's where supplements can be beneficial.


Step 3: Supplmentation


Choosing a high-quality supplement:


  • Firstly, verify if your daily multivitamin provides vitamin D. If you already take a women-focused multivitamin, it likely has sufficient vitamin D. If not, consider taking a third-party certified supplement to ensure the product's accuracy and quality.

  • It's worth noting that supplements are not regulated, and some products may provide a smaller dose than advertised. To avoid such discrepancies, always opt for a third-party certified brand. I recommend the supplement brand linked HERE. Alternatively, you can refer to the NSF website for additional options.

  • Ensure that you take vitamin D3, which is the active form of the vitamin.

Something to note regarding the absorption of vitamin D. Adequate calcium is essential for efficient absorption of vitamin D. Overloading on vitamin D may not be beneficial if it's not being absorbed. Therefore, it's important to incorporate calcium-rich foods such as dairy, yogurt, tofu, soybeans, canned sardines or salmon, etc., in your diet throughout the week.


In summary, I highly recommend everyone, especially pregnant women, have their vitamin D levels monitored. Those experiencing depressive symptoms should also consider assessing their vitamin D levels. While it's preferable to obtain vitamin D from food sources, it might be necessary to take supplements.


For those interested in learning more about vitamin D, including its functions and recommended dosages, please refer to the NIH Vitamin D Fact Sheet.


As always here is the link for the FULL ARTICLE.


Thanks for reading & and welcome to The Holistic Approach!

-Sami Runshaw, RD


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