Here comes the sun… right?

As every international in the Netherlands soon realises, the weather here is a common topic of conversation. The frequent rain and always lingering clouds are well known for their effect on hair styles, dry pants and sanity, but a more subtle yet worrying effect can be sunlight deficiency.

Yes, it may sound a bit dramatic to say you could suffer from a lack of sunlight just from the weather in the Netherlands, but it’s true. The rainy days and long winter nights make catching some rays a rare treat this time of year, and this can lead to some distressing side effects. Even minor deficiencies in vitamin D (the vitamin we receive most from moderate sun exposure) can impact our health in ways that disrupt our daily lives. Healthline.com explains how a lack of sunlight can lead to lower levels of serotonin and higher levels of the sleep hormone, melatonin. Low serotonin levels can lead to depressive feelings, and mood disorders like major depression and anxiety.

Depressed mood in winter when there is minimal sun is a fairly common struggle and is generally known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD (more formally: depression with seasonal pattern). This can be exacerbated by higher levels of melatonin and combine in feelings of fatigue, irritation, stress and anxiety. Insufficient sunlight can also impact sleep quality, which can worsen feelings of fatigue and depression.

On top of the possible effects on mental health, a lack of vitamin D can also impact your physical health. Possible signs of a lack of sunlight, according to Healthline, include aching bones, back pain, frequent illnesses like colds, slow healing of wounds and physical fatigue. These problems can become severe if your levels of vitamin D are severely deficient, with the likelihood of more serious illnesses like diabetes, osteoporosis, and even some cancers, increasing.

Severe deficiencies can also lead to hair loss, bone density loss and inflammation problems. It is worth noting that these more severe problems are unlikely to happen just from the seasonal dip in sun exposure, but continuous and increasing deficiencies in vitamin D can be a troubling concern.

I’m not just talking about a lack of vitamin D in case it happens. Being from sunny South Africa myself, I am accustomed (apparently, according to energy.gov.za) to around 2.500 hours of sunlight a year. That’s an average for South Africa, with some regions regularly topping 3.000 hours a year. Compared to the Netherlands’ roughly 1.600 hours a year… I’m essentially going through sunshine withdrawals.

After a few weeks of enjoying cozy in-door winter days, I began experiencing a lot of the signs of low vitamin D levels. While this wasn’t severe, Healthline.com explains that even minor dips in vitamin D can cause negative effects and should be addressed.

So after all of this worrying about low mood and aching bones, how do we get enough sunlight in such a rainy country? Thankfully, it seems like a lack of sunlight is a relatively easy fix. If you’re not a socially anxious hermit like me, you can venture out during the cold and get some solid time in the rare moments of sunshine between the clouds. The World Health Organisation suggests that 10 to 20 minutes of sun, two to three times a week can be sufficient for healthy levels of vitamin D. If you have darker skin you may need more time in the sun for your body to produce enough vitamin D, so it can be useful to do some research on just how much time to spend out in the fleeting rays.

But there are other ways to get your dose of vitamin D. When sunlight is lacking you can consider using supplementary lighting that simulates sunshine and promotes vitamin D production. If you’re accustomed to less sunlight (for example, being from northern Europe or the UK), an extra light source like a light box can help supplement the levels of light you’re getting naturally. If you’re accustomed to more frequent sunshine (for example, if you’re from South Africa, Australia, southern Europe, South America or parts of the US), you may need an extra boost, specifically in the colder – and thus, darker – months.

Vitamins can enrich your diet, but consult with your doctor if you’re ever uncertain about adding supplements to your routine. Speaking of diet, you can also increase your vitamin D intake with certain foods. Harvard School of Public Health on hsph.harvard.edu suggests fish – especially fatty fish – and other seafood. Egg yolk, beef liver, some cereals and foods fortified with vitamin D are also good additions for a higher intake, and can help keep vitamin D levels consistent in the darker months.

While sunlight is obviously important to our health and wellbeing, the well known warnings about UV exposure still stand. Too much sun is also dangerous, so it’s about finding that sweet spot between too much and too little. Although, I find it difficult to think I could get too much sun in Tilburg right now.

Have you felt the sun’s absence? Are you missing the warmth (and vitamin D) it offers? Let us know at @universonline and share in the mutual pain!

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