Patricia Carswell is a health and fitness writer. She has written for all of the major newspapers and a wide variety of fitness publications, and is writer of the award-winning blog, Girl on the River.
Stress is essentially a reaction by the brain and body to a challenge or a threat, and your body reacts by releasing chemicals into your blood. Athletes suffer from the same causes of stress as everyone else, of course — work, family, money, and so on — but there can be additional pressures on them, often specific to their training.
If you’re involved in competitive sport, and it doesn’t have to be at a professional level, you may experience performance anxiety and suffer from stress — both leading up to the competition and at the event itself. They’re common problems, and vitamin D can play an active role in helping to relieve them.
Understanding performance anxiety
As an athlete you may feel anxious about your performance, either if you are underperforming or, equally, if you think you are. Self-critical types can be particularly prone to this. Should injury hit, this can add to your feelings of stress and anxiety. Worrying about how and when you will recover, the effects of the injury on your fitness, athletic performance, and for any forthcoming competitions can really have a negative effect on your mindset. For example, you may worry about how it will affect your place in a team or squad.
Stress, however, need not always be negative. When managed efficiently, at a competitive event for instance, it can increase your focus, strength, stamina, and alertness — giving rise to increased energy, motivation, and blood flow.
When it reaches too high a pitch, however, or if it is not handled well mentally, it can become a negative force in your life as an athlete. At this point, you may see your performance suffering, feel more fatigued, and you may feel less enthusiastic about training, too. So, how can vitamin D help?
Where does vitamin D come in?
Vitamin D is a steroid hormone that can be obtained from your diet — in egg yolks, cod liver oils, fatty fish like salmon, sardines, herring, and mackerel, and in some fortified products such as margarine (though not enough, in normal portions, to give you an adequate dose). It can also be synthesised in your skin during sunlight exposure. To become active in your body, however, vitamin D needs receptors (VDR), with the calcitriol receptor being the primary one.
The relationship between stress and vitamin D can be a bit of a vicious cycle. For example, the hormone cortisol, which is produced when your body is under stress, can block the calcitriol receptor, and the absorption of vitamin D as a result. Therefore, if your training is causing you stress or anxiety, it may prevent you from efficiently absorbing this essential vitamin.
At the same time, vitamin D supplementation has been shown to help you deal with your stress levels — through indirectly helping to manage depression, and being associated with decreased levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. According to one recent study, for example, adults supplementing with vitamin D had lower levels of cortisol in their urine and, as a bonus, performed better in a fitness test.
Vitamin D and the causes of stress
Not only will having enough vitamin D help you cope with stress, it may also help you deal with the causes of your stress. For example, do you worry about your performance levels? If so, it’s essential you keep your vitamin D topped up: it has been shown to increase athletic performance in vitamin D-deficient athletes.
It could also be worth considering taking a vitamin D supplementation if it’s injury that’s causing you to be anxious. It can help your body to absorb calcium, helping to strengthen your bones, and has been shown in studies to help reduce the incidence of stress fractures — one of the most common sports injuries — as a result. Vitamin D deficiency has also been associated with an increased incidence of illness and muscle injury, and adequate vitamin D levels are thought to be important for muscle repair after injury, and in injury prevention as well.
Vitamin D could also be of help if you worry about your weight — especially if it tends to gather around your waist. In studies, vitamin D supplementation has been associated with a lower waist-to-hip ratio, as well as body fat reduction.
How do you know if you’re getting enough vitamin D?
The government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) have been conducting a detailed and comprehensive report on vitamin D. In its draft report, published in 2015, SACN revealed that around 10 million people in the UK are deficient in vitamin D, with levels especially low in the winter. People with darker skin are more prone to deficiency, as are the over 65s and those who spend little time out of doors. As a result of these findings, they recommended that vitamin D supplements should be more widely available to at-risk groups.
Your chosen form of exercise can also have an impact on your vitamin D levels. If your sport takes you outside a lot, you may be exposed to more sunlight, increasing your vitamin D intake in the process, for instance. However, if your workouts are all in the gym, if you live somewhere without much sunshine, or if you protect your skin from the sun by covering up or wearing sunscreen, you’re unlikely to get much vitamin D from the sun.
What kind of vitamin D should I take?
The vitamin D found in plants is vitamin D2, whereas the vitamin produced when your skin is exposed to the sun (and from fish) is vitamin D3. Although some doctors still prescribe D2 (ergocalciferol), Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) is widely thought to be preferable as it’s more potent and longer-acting.
Research at the moment shows that vitamin D can have a positive effect on helping you manage stress and anxiety levels in sport — whether that be through psychological problems such as worrying about performance levels, or in helping you get through an injury.
For any more information on how you can help manage training injuries or improve your joint health, head on over to our Elite hub for expert advice.