Sun, Vitamin D, Depression, and Utah

By: Stephen Marsh
May 9, 2014
Vitamin D deficiency can lead to depression, and Utah's air pollution could explain increased suicides.

Vitamin D deficiency can lead to depression, and Utah’s air pollution could explain increased suicides.

Thirty years ago, Utah was the lowest in depression and other issues for states in its demographic/locational axis (depression goes up the further north you go, it goes up in mountain states, it is modified by age balance).

Since then Utah has become less LDS and more depressed.

But that isn’t the real story or the real correlation.

The real correlation is that LDS women get a lot less sun than they used to. While they probably have a lot less risk for skin cancer, recent statistics show that they are among the most vitamin D deprived group in the nation (your skin manufactures vitamin D when it is exposed to sunlight. Sunscreens and other things can reduce vitamin D creation by your skin).

It is an interesting demographic and physical change. With a surprisingly direct response — rather than anti-depressants, most LDS who have mild depression need to first check their vitamin D levels. Then either tan or take a supplement (unlike tanning, vitamin D supplements do not seem to have any connection with skin cancer).

Of course there is also a study that links air pollution to suicide in Utah.  Those who have lived in Salt Lake know that the smog can block out the sunlight, so perhaps these studies are related.  It seems that there are other factors to blame than simply membership in the LDS Church.  What are your thoughts?

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22 Responses to Sun, Vitamin D, Depression, and Utah

  1. Justin on May 9, 2014 at 11:47 AM

    The real correlation is that LDS women get a lot less sun than they used to.

    I don’t know what the studies makes corrections for — but I’d assume that most US adults [including those LDS women] take some kind of decent multi-vitamin rather regularly [especially is LDS women are known for being "barefoot and pregnant", shouldn't they pretty much always be on a prenatal?].

    In any event, if that’s the case [and my guess is that it probably is], then I’d expect the depression should be linked to other factors besides D3 status [like judgmental, repressive culture or the smog, etc.].

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  2. Justin on May 9, 2014 at 11:50 AM

    Oops.

    That should say:

    … [especially if LDS women are known …

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  3. anita on May 9, 2014 at 11:53 AM

    interesting theory! i definitely see a correlation between the weather and moods for many of my family members here. hoping to retire somewhere sunny :-)

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  4. Mormon Heretic on May 9, 2014 at 12:40 PM

    Justin, I wouldn’t be inclined to think that people take vitamin supplements. And even if they do, I found this startling study that vitamin supplements may be bad for you (especially if you have cancer.) See http://www.nbcnews.com/health/some-supplements-might-fuel-tumors-study-finds-2D12016069

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  5. hawkgrrrl on May 9, 2014 at 2:01 PM

    An interesting contrast would be to Mormon women living in AZ where it is sunny every day. I wonder how they would compare. There are such high concentrations of Mormons in places like Gilbert, Chandler and Mesa that they also (reputedly, although I don’t know first hand) experience repression and judgmental cultures to the same extent as Utah county. I have often noted that they are trying to out-Provo Provo.

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  6. Nate on May 9, 2014 at 3:55 PM

    hawkgrrrl, that would be the way to do it. You have to have a control group, and Arizona would be it. Is this Vitamin D thing really having an effect? I live in the UK, where sun is rare, and I don’t know what suicides are like, but I found this article supposedly linking hot weather to more suicides in the UK:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/6925882.stm

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  7. Stephen R. Marsh on May 9, 2014 at 4:14 PM

    What is interesting is just how many people are having their doctors tell them that their vitamin D levels are down — in spite of getting it in milk (most milk is vitamin D fortified) and other sources. MH — I’ve seen a number of studies reflecting that multi-vitamins do not increase health. Personally, I quit taking them I get sick much more often than when I do.

    But in Texas we have a fair amount of sun, and a large number of people who are vitamin D deficient. People covering up too much.

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  8. Sun Lover on May 9, 2014 at 5:26 PM

    Well, my totally anecdotal experience concurs. I grew up in a sunny climate, went to college in northern Utah, and then returned to a sunny climate. Let me tell you, the winters under that unspeakable blanket of filthy pollution in Utah hit me like a ton of bricks and I spent several months out of the year mired in depression. When I moved back to AZ, I looked around one February and realized I wasn’t sad–it was like a miracle! I’ve got no scientific backing for this, but I think there’s psychological benefits from seeing the actual sun beyond what the vitamins are doing.

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  9. Hedgehog on May 10, 2014 at 12:33 AM

    I am much more cheerful on sunny days. On gloomy winter days (of which there are many), getting up in the dark, and dark in the early evening, I just want to curl up and hibernate until spring.

    Nate, hot weather isn’t necessarily sunny weather. And hot weather in summer in Britain usually means humid. Sunny is great, but the high humidity is downright oppressive. I like a nice cooling breeze in summer. Still the heat and humidity are both worse in Japan.

    I don’t imagine Arizona is humid.

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  10. Kt on May 10, 2014 at 9:39 AM

    I could see there being correlation with the weather. However, I find it unconvincing because I live in MN, where it is colder, with less sun for more of the year than Utah…. I have lived in Utah as well, and I can vouch for it being much less severe in terms of the sun, cold, winter weather, etc.
    I can also vouch for the fact that in ‘happy valley’, there is a definite climate of judgment, and expectation of living ones life according to a certain set of standards. All of America is all about ‘keeping up with the Jones’, but Utah county takes it to a whole other level.

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  11. Jibran Qazi on May 10, 2014 at 11:52 AM

    Very interesting. It is true that Vitamin D does have effect on mood. Also other nutrients play similar roles as well. As far as the the weather and mood connection, yes I concur that most people (Especially in our city like Vancouver) can definitely benefit from a little more sunshine. Who wouldn’t :)

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  12. Jeff Spector on May 10, 2014 at 2:15 PM

    I have a doctor who is a fanatic on this Vitamin D stuff. Gees, how did i get along for so long with low vit. D? Now, I am up to 10K units a day and all he can say is “good, but it could be higher….” And isn’t it supposed to make you “feel better.” I detect no difference.

    And, no offense, but I think Utah is kind of depressing…..beautiful in some places…

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  13. hawkgrrrl on May 10, 2014 at 3:07 PM

    I too find Utah depressing, but I find lots of places depressing. Sunshine is one factor, but provincialism is the thing that depresses me most about a place.

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  14. Howard on May 11, 2014 at 7:20 AM

    Vitamin D protects against several types of (non skin) cancer.

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  15. Stephen R. Marsh on May 11, 2014 at 9:04 AM

    It made me think since the culture hasn’t changed much in thirty years. The two biggest changes are (a) more non-members and (b) less vitamin D getting through on people’s skins as they’ve gone from a pro-sun tan culture to a sun screen in very product culture.

    Most of the other things people dislike (i.e. they judge Utah harshly for being judgmental, with some probably intended irony), are things that really haven’t changed.

    It might be that having more non-members has made the place depressing compared to thirty years ago. But I was just looking at alternatives.

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  16. onecrazymama on May 11, 2014 at 8:17 PM

    Depression is also a hereditary disorder. Families that continue to live in Utah generation after generation and carry the genetic markers will eventually have several generations of family with some form of depression. It is a group of disorders including anxiety.

    I never struggled with depression/anxiety until I’d lived in Utah for ten years then it hit me like a truck. Now I take anti-depressants and large doses of Vitamin D. I need both to make it work. Winter is the worst. I can cut my dose in half in the summer.

    LDS people are also (for the most part I think) non-drinkers. Many depressed people self-medicate with alcohol. If you corrected for that variable, you might see some interesting trends too.

    You can blame it on the culture, and I don’t discount that at all, but I think the problem is much more multi-sided than that.

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  17. Justin on May 12, 2014 at 11:38 AM

    And even if they do, I found this startling study that vitamin supplements may be bad for you (especially if you have cancer.)

    I’ve heard that too MH — but if we’re going to say that’s a real effect, then it applies equally across all Americans who either do or do not take their multi each day.

    So unless you’re going to say LDS take vitamin supplements at a higher rate than non-LDS, then the greater depression seen in Utah cannot be tied-back to D3 status.

    I think it’s obvious that sunlight exposure affects mood — but the question is why do Utahans have such a higher usage of SSRIs. A lower D3 staus? Methinks not.

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  18. Mormon Heretic on May 12, 2014 at 11:47 AM

    Justin, I’m just saying your assumption is spurious: I’d assume that most US adults [including those LDS women] take some kind of decent multi-vitamin rather regularly [especially is LDS women are known for being "barefoot and pregnant", shouldn't they pretty much always be on a prenatal?]

    Utah happens to have more vitamin companies than any other state in the union. Does that mean Utahns take more or less vitamins than anyone else? Who knows. I would hesitate to make any general statements about whether Utahns take more or less vitamins unless there were facts that back up that claim. I wouldn’t assume that anything “applies equally across all Americans.” That’s just a spurious assumption.

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  19. New Iconoclast on May 12, 2014 at 12:27 PM

    I think it means that Utahns have more health-supplement pyramid distributorship schemes than any other state in the union.

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  20. Mormon Heretic on May 12, 2014 at 1:16 PM

    Yes, there are some pyramid companies, but I used to work for another company that has become one of the largest vitamin manufacturers in America, and they employ no pyramid tactics at all. There are plenty of these “legit” manufacturers here in Utah as well.

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  21. brjones on May 13, 2014 at 9:40 AM

    This theory ignores numerous studies that rank a number of cold, wet nations, like the Scandanavian nations, as the happiest nations on earth. This post strikes me as a bit of whistling past the graveyard.

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  22. Depression on May 14, 2014 at 12:07 PM

    I didn’t know that Salt Lake City had such a pollution problem. Forget the lack of vitamin D, the pollution itself can make people depressed as they see what is happening to their surroundings.

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