Vitamins As a Substitute for Sunlight and Important Nutrients? What Works and What Doesn’t

January through March are particularly tough months–even though the days are growing longer, it’s dark and dreary. With the frigid temperatures, sun exposure is a tease. Typically, the few minutes we get between our houses, work, school, or the grocery store isn’t enough to revitalize us or replenish natural nutrients and vitamins.

What’s more, the average American diet typically lacks in a number of essential nutrients, including calcium, potassium, magnesium, and vitamins A, C, and D. Many people turn to dietary supplements in hope of getting an extra boost and a preventive buffer to help ward off disease.

But supplements don’t always deliver better health. In fact, some can even be dangerous when taken in larger-than-recommended amounts.

Are supplements dangerous?

Many supplements help replace vitamins that may be lacking in our diets. For example, studies claim vitamin D is a possible defense against a long list of diseases, including cancer, diabetes, depression, and even the common cold. Omega-3 fatty acids are touted for warding off strokes and other cardiovascular events. And antioxidants such as vitamins C and E and beta carotene have been studied as effective agents against heart disease, cancer, and even Alzheimer’s disease.

But much of the testing has been observational; the results of more stringent randomized controlled trials, which also examine dietary factors, exercise habits and other variables, haven’t yielded overall positive results. Additionally, people who take supplements already tend exercise more, eat better, and have an overall healthier lifestyle.

Outside of observational studies, some supplements turned out to be not only ineffective but also risky. Vitamin E, initially thought to protect the heart, was later discovered to increase the risk for bleeding strokes. Folic acid and other B vitamins were once believed to prevent heart disease and strokes, but later studies raised concerns that high doses of these nutrients might increase cancer risk.

Stay focused on proper nutritional balance

We need a variety of nutrients each day to stay healthy, including calcium and vitamin D to protect our bones, folic acid to produce and maintain new cells, and vitamin A to preserve a healthy immune system and vision.

It is best to try to get these vitamins, minerals, and nutrients from food as opposed to supplements. Fruits, vegetables, fish, and other healthy foods contain nutrients and other substances not found in a pill, which work together to keep us healthy. Taking certain vitamin or mineral supplements in excess may even interfere with nutrient absorption or cause side effects.

For many people, simply taking a multi-purpose daily vitamin is enough. For others, certain vitamins missing from our diets can be replenished specifically. Often a simple blood test can help identify potential vitamin deficiencies. Vegan or vegetarian diets, can be especially susceptible to a lack of calcium and vitamin D.

Sun exposure in the winter months also is helpful, even in small doses. Many people get depressed in the winter–some may be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which affects approximately 10 percent of the population. Symptoms of SAD include sleeping too much, lack of energy and low moods or depression. Usually symptoms clear up when the weather changes.

Light therapy is a common and effective treatment for SAD. The use of bright light for up to one hour per day has been shown to be effective and can work after just one week. Being active at dawn and dusk may help reset the sleep/wake cycle of those with SAD. And though it may seem like an obvious solution, tanning booths are not healthy alternatives to proper sun exposure.

Vitamin deficiencies and solutions

Before taking supplements it’s important to know whether the potential benefits outweigh the risks. Look at the results of well-designed studies and discuss your overall health with a licensed nutritional expert and your physician, especially if you have a chronic diseases or are taking other medications.

Psychology Today lists some common vitamin concerns and potential solutions:

B-Complex vitamins affect your mood and energy by  converting proteins from your diet into neurotransmitters. B-complex vitamins also support heart health, improve our response to stress, and help boost energy levels. While most B vitamins have some benefits for mental health, in terms of depression, the most important B vitamins include vitamin B6, B9 (folic acid) and B12.

Good sources of B-vitamins include beef, poultry and organ meats, tuna, nutritional yeast, brewer’s yeast, whole grains, potatoes, bananas, lentils tempeh, beans, dark leafy vegetables, fortified cereals and molasses. Vitamin B12 is not available from plants, which makes B12 deficiency a concern for strict vegans.

Vitamin D deficiency is particularly likely in the winter when low levels of sunlight and lack of stored vitamin D exacerbate borderline or low vitamin D levels. Vitamin D deficiency is especially common in vulnerable populations such as African-Americans, the elderly, children, the obese, pregnant women and breastfed babies.

The suggested upper limit for adults is 2,000 IU per day of vitamin D3. However, if this does not produce a healthy blood level of vitamin D, higher doses can be used under the supervision of a health care practitioner.

St. John’s Wort is thought to have an antidepressant effect. Research has shown that it is effective for mood, anxiety, and depression-related insomnia.

Most studies used dosages of 300 mg of an extract three times daily. But there are potential side effects, including its potential to lower the efficacy of certain medications including birth control pills, medications for migraines (Imitrex, Zomig, other triptans), alprazolam (Xanax), the cough medicine Dextromethorphan (Robitussin DM and others), Digoxin, Fenfluramine, Demerol and other medications. Talk to your doctor before taking St. John’s Wort if you have been diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder or you are on prescription antidepressant medications.

Fish oil is a well-recognized mood-support supplement. Consumption of fish in the diet or supplementation of omega-3 fatty acids is safe and cost-effective and has been shown to benefit heart disease, reduce suicide risk, and reduce symptoms of depression and bipolar disorder. Higher consumption of fish is also associated with lower rates of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and postpartum depression.

Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids include fish, leafy greens, soy, nuts and seeds. For mild mood changes, take 2,000 – 3,000 mg daily. However, if you take a blood thinner, check with your physician before taking fish oil as it may increase bleeding time.

If you believe you may be lacking in a particular nutrient, ask your doctor whether you need to look beyond your diet to make up for what you’re missing, but never take more than the recommended daily intake for that nutrient unless your health care provider advises it.


Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!