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The sunshine vitamin: the importance of vitamin D for our health

By Shubhangi Dua

Design by Ellen Stanton

Sitting by the window, listening to Bach, drinking some hibiscus herbal tea and re-reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire while it’s pouring cats and dogs outside. The only missing element in my almost picture perfect fantasy is the dazzlingly fierce rays of bright egyptian yellow . It’s been days since the sun has graced us with its presence and I long for it to shine through and disrupt this November gloom.

It’s astonishing just how much good a mere thirty minutes of sunshine a day can do and how much the onset of winter can affect our wellbeing.

TIME magazine’s article on the pros of sunshine tesitifes to this. Alice Park wrote, “Dr. Normal Rosenthal at Georgetown University described the so-called winter blues: the lethargy and feelings of sadness and hopelessness that come when the weather forces people to spend more time indoors and the season provides little opportunity for exposure to natural light.” The winter blues could also be associated with a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder as suggested by Dr Rosenthal.

Furthermore, I recently had the chance to speak with Dr Afreen Khan, a medical professional and a current postgraduate dermatology student, who reiterated the importance of taking Seasonal Affective Disorder seriously. Dr. Khan explained that: “It is essential for the human body to experience sunshine for a minimum of 30 minutes each day. The human brain and body, both need just the right amount of stimulation that helps calm the anxiety and depression. I first read about cases involving Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in the undergraduate program and it was quite illuminating but also made me empathetic towards those who experienced it. An increase of SAD has been observed in people living in the colder parts or gloomier of the world due to the lower exposure of sunlight.

According to the National Health Service, some common symptoms of SAD include, ‘persistent low mood, loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities, irritation, feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness, feeling lethargic and sleepy during the day, sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up, and also, craving carbohydrates and gaining weight.’ The severity of the symptoms ranges from person to person. Medical professionals including psychologists often recommend those with SAD symptoms to include a form of exercise in their routine to manage stress levels, eating healthier as well as stepping out during sunny days and experience natural sunlight out in the open. Jogging, hiking, cycling are a few good options. The NHS also recommends a few other treatments like ‘Light Therapy’ (where a special lamp called a light box is used to simulate exposure to sunlight); ‘Talking Therapies’ (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy– CBT and Counselling).

British Vogue’s journalist, Hannah Coates conversation with NHS professionals led her to surmise that “lack of sunlight prevents our brain’s hypothalamus working properly, leading to increased production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin and a decrease production of the happy hormone serotonin; plus, our circadian rhythms become out of whack.

My interview with Dr Afreen Khan, led me to endorse that perception as well. Khan also added, “It is important to step out in the good morning sun or during the evening sunset. It is important for humans to absorb sunlight so the natural production of Vitamin D occurs which will stimulate good bone strength and density. Also, the absorption of UV rays speeds up the process in patients with skin conditions like Psoriasis and Eczema. Hence, a good 30-45 minute of daily exposure to sunlight will definitely have a positive impact on one’s physical and mental wellbeing.” Needless to say, one should always wear sun protecting cream or gel when out in the sun. It is also important to protect yourselves from the harmful effects of UV rays.

Winter sunshine in Cardiff is an elusive treasure and I grab it greedily when I can. I have firsthand experience of the effect dreary days can have on my mental health: making me prone to melancholy and listlessness. I find physical activity a helpful way to counter these feelings, particularly yoga. When the sun does come out early in the morning, I rush to the park with my yoga mat and find a good spot where the sun falls directly onto my face. The first half an hour of yoga includes, 15-20 rounds of Surya-Namaskar (Sun salutation). This has always brightened up my day and filled me with positive energy. Honestly, after a yoga session, I feel like I can conquer the world.

Triyoga, a London based yoga centre’s manager, Genny Wilkinson Priest supports the view that yoga can help those suffering with SAD. She tells Vogue, “Yoga in general can help people suffering with SAD to see that their anxiety and sadness will pass, and are not permanent states of consciousness. Seeing that it’s temporary gives people a sense of freedom, personal agency and balance.

Keeping my personal experience in mind, I believe we have to connect to nature at its purest and get the best of it while we can. I can personally assure you, minimal lifestyle changes can have profound positive impact.

The benefits of soaking up the sunshine are irrefutable, and we should make haste to reap the rewards of its rays when the opportunity presents itself. Nevertheless, the days of grey need not be so disheartening-taking time to focus on gentle exercise, nourishing food or exploring light therapy are all good options for fighting the gloom.

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