Like air, food, and water, the sun is something most people take for granted. However, a lack of exposure to sunlight can not only make you cold - it can also cause you psychological distress due to your body's need for an essential vitamin that the sun is usually responsible for providing. That vitamin is vitamin D.
Vitamin D deficiency, usually caused by a lack of exposure to sunlight, is thought to play an essential part in a person's mental health and has been linked to things like seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. This article will discuss why vitamin D is so vital to our psychological well-being, and how you can ensure that you both get enough vitamin D and lower your anxiety.
How Severe is Your Anxiety?
Vitamin D may contribute to mild anxiety, but it does not necessarily help with severe anxiety. If you haven't yet, take our free 7-minute anxiety severity test to see how severe your anxiety is and learn how to treat it.
Vitamin D and History
Vitamin D is not believed to affect anxiety directly. Though it may be correlated with higher anxiety levels, there are likely reasons beyond the vitamin itself - reasons that will be discussed later in this article. If you have anxiety, make sure you take my free 7 minute anxiety test to find out more.
Historically, seeing the sun was often a cause for celebration and happiness. Sun meant food could grow, and that warmer weather was coming. Conversely, not seeing the sun often meant food was becoming scarcer and that important members of your village, tribe, or family, not to mention yourself, were at risk of dying from the cold. People became less active, and some cultures even took to hibernating like bears during the colder seasons. It is no wonder that cultures across the world, from the ancient Egyptians to the Mayans to the Greeks, once worshipped the sun as a god.
Today, it is believed that ancestral memory - which is, in some ways, short-term evolution - may play a role in why vitamin D and spending time outdoors makes people feel better. Just as humans feel an instinctive revulsion towards bitter flavors due to our ancestral association of bitterness with poisonous foods, the human body may have an instinctive awareness of its need for sunlight.
Seasonal Affective Disorder and Anxiety - Is There a Link?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), once considered its unique disorder, has been renamed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) as a type of depression. It is now referred to as a specification only, i.e., depression with seasonal pattern.
People who experience seasonally patterned depression are known to show symptoms that include feelings of anxiety, and other symptoms that are reminiscent of those related to anxiety, such as irritability, antisocial behavior, insomnia, reduced sex drive, decreased appetite and weight loss. Some of these symptoms, like insomnia, may also contribute to the development of anxiety.
Your anxiety, therefore, can depend on how much sun you are exposed to if you are an individual who is particularly strongly affected by seasonal shifts.
Other Reasons That Low Vitamin D and Anxiety Are Linked
The other reasons that low levels of vitamin D may relate to anxiety have nothing to do with the vitamin at all. Instead, they have to do with lifestyles. There is a considerable amount of evidence that those that don't exercise are more likely to develop anxiety. A lot of exercise takes place outdoors, so those that aren't exercising will also show low vitamin D levels. It's not the vitamin D that's causing it - rather, it's the failure of the individual to adequately stay active.
Similarly, spending time with friends in a relaxing environment also affects anxiety. Many people with anxiety either don't spend time with their friends or stay indoors only and fail to get many new experiences. This may also contribute to both anxiety and vitamin d deficiency independently.
Vitamin D and Multiple Sclerosis
Finally, some people worry about vitamin D because there is some evidence that low vitamin D may be related to the development of multiple sclerosis. Some people then take vitamin D supplements and experience a reduction in their anxiety.
It may cause people to feel that perhaps vitamin D was necessary to reduce anxiety when in reality it was simply that you were less worried about MS. Vitamin D may be related to MS, but anxiety also causes MS fears and MS-like symptoms, and a few vitamin D supplements are unlikely to affect either.
How to Increase Vitamin D and Decrease Anxiety
While vitamin D itself is unlikely to be causing your anxiety, that doesn't mean it can't, and the activities that you do to help increase vitamin D are valuable for your anxiety anyway. Getting outside will help you get what vitamin D you can, although there are also nutritional supplements available. Getting more sunlight by going outside more often can reduce the symptom of anxiety associated with SAD (a.k.a. seasonally patterned depression), and it can also give you a chance to reduce your anxiety by way of activities such as the following:
- Exercising Exercising outdoors rather than in a stuffy gym is a great way to reduce your anxiety. Not only does it give you a chance to breathe fresh air and enjoy the beauty of the world around you, but it also helps your body to get in shape and feel better when done on a regular basis. It decreases the strain that anxiety puts on your body, and also increases levels of endorphins, the chemical that appears in the body when it is feeling relaxed and positive. Teaching your brain to expect to process chemicals related to relaxation and positivity can cause it to create more receptors for such compounds, making you happier and less stressed out in general.
- Spending Time in Nature Spending time in nature can help you to distress by reminding you of the scale of reality. When you spend time in nature, your problems will often seem to shrink in comparison to how much else there is to life. Take some time to contemplate a tree a living being that's been around likely at least twice as long as you have or the beauty of a sunrise, to help you gain some perspective on the issues that are causing you anxiety.
- Taking Time To Yourself Many people underestimate the importance of simply taking some time to be alone with your thoughts. In a world where anyone who knows you can demand your attention with the touch of a button at any time of the day or night, giving yourself a chance to stop and reflect on your thoughts and feelings is more important than ever. Oftentimes anxiety makes you feel like you are under too much pressure to actually solve your problems. Being out in the world on your own allows you to concentrate on no-one but yourself for a change, and actually figure out how to address the issues that are bothering you.
- Exposure Therapy Exposure therapy is recommended by some therapists as a way of overcoming your anxiety. If you have social phobia and are nervous around other people, for example, casually taking a walk outside in a park or at a zoo is a great way to exposure yourself to your fears in a safe and controlled environment, thereby teaching your brain over time that excessive fear responses in these situations are unnecessary.
- Creating a Routine Making going outside into a comforting routine helps to relieve anxiety by providing yourself with a positive event in your day that is reliable, predictable and stable. Anxiety can make you feel like your life or your surroundings are out of your control. You can impose control on your life in a positive way by setting a time for yourself to head out the door for 30 minutes or more and walking around the block, which can be something you do in evening or in the mornings, or going on regular walks or hikes on weekends.
Each of the above activities will help you to take in some extra vitamin D and thereby ease your ancestrally-inherited anxieties. Also, they are proactive ways of addressing multiple other potential reasons behind your anxiety, from physical stress to a perceived lack of control, and improving important areas of your life and your tan, as well.
If you're looking for a more comprehensive strategy for reducing your anxiety, make sure you take my free 7-minute anxiety test now. This test is a great way to learn more about your anxiety beyond simply your nutrition and promote ideas that may cure it.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Nov 23, 2017.