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What to Know About Vitamin D and Mental Health

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 30, 2021

Vitamin D deficiency leads to both medical and psychosocial problems. It has re-emerged as an epidemic that mainly affects the minority populations. 

Impact of Vitamin D Deficiency on Mental Health

The body needs Vitamin D at the proper level for it to function as it should. 

How Vitamin D Works In The Body

Your muscles, heart, brain, and immune system have vitamin D receptors. The body transports the vitamin to the kidneys and liver, where it converts into an active hormone. In this form, it assists the body in absorbing calcium.

Your body acquires vitamin D through sun exposure. Certain foods and supplements can also be sources of vitamin D. Dark-skinned people have a high level of melanin.

It’s the component that determines coloring in the human and animal world. This pigmentation prevents the skin from absorbing vitamin D correctly.

How Vitamin D Deficiency Leads to Mental Health Effects

Low levels of the vitamin may contribute to schizophrenia in adults, depression, and seasonal affective disorder. Other health problems that can arise from the deficiency include:

  • Low bone density
  • Bone softening
  • Heart disease
  • Rickets in children
  • Cancer

Those At Risk of Vitamin D Deficiency

A large portion of the population is at risk of vitamin D deficiency. People who live far from the equator, and those with conditions like liver disease, renal disease, and celiac, are at a higher risk. The elderly and people with darker skin also fall in this category.

Symptoms of Vitamin D Deficiency

Vitamin D deficiency presents similar symptoms to those of depression:

  • Mood changes accompanied by overwhelming feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and hopelessness
  • Fatigue
  • Forgetfulness
  • Loss of interest in activities that previously sparked excitement
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of appetite
  • Excessive weight loss or gain
  • Trouble sleeping

If you experience any of these symptoms similar to depression, have your vitamin D levels checked. Your doctor will do a test to determine the level of the vitamin in your blood. 

For depression diagnosis, you may have to complete a self-assessment test. A blood test can't diagnose depression but may test other conditions that cause depressive symptoms.

Vitamin D and Depression

Depression is a medical condition that changes the thoughts, feelings, or behaviors of an individual. Symptoms include:

  • Loss of interest in activities the individual previously liked
  • Isolation and withdrawal
  • Lack of concentration and focus
  • Difficulty sleeping or eating
  • Suicidal tendencies or ideations

What Research Shows

Studies on vitamin D supplementation and depression show a relationship between the two. 

The only limitation of the studies is that they don’t prove that vitamin D deficiency causes depression. People with depression may have lower vitamin D levels, but the deficiency did not cause the illness.

 How Vitamin D Deficiency is Linked to Depression

If the cause of depression was a lack of the vitamin, then supplementation would help reduce the signs and symptoms. An increase in the levels of the vitamin would also prevent depression from occurring, but this is not the case.

There is another possible explanation of the correlation between vitamin D deficiency and depression. Many groups at a high risk of depression are also likely to have vitamin D deficiency. 

Adolescents, people with obesity, the elderly, and those with chronic illnesses are the most prone to having vitamin D deficiency. They are also at a higher risk of depression.

Possible Causes for This Correlation

As noted above, some symptoms of clinical depression include withdrawal and social isolation. Since these individuals spend less time outside, they lack the much-needed exposure to process enough vitamin D. 

Severe cases of depression make it hard for the person to get out of bed or take part in outdoor activities. Social isolation only makes the symptoms worse. This is why healthcare providers encourage people with depression to spend more time with others.

Additionally, people dealing with depression have a hard time taking care of themselves properly. They may not eat properly and may not get vitamin D supplements for themselves. Depression alters their behavior and thought processes, making them engage in behaviors that worsen vitamin D deficiency.

Treating Vitamin D Deficiency

The best way to treat vitamin D deficiency is to:

  • Increase your exposure to the sun
  • Increase your intake of food fortified with vitamin D
  • Take supplements

Your doctor may also give you antidepressants to treat depression. You can take them separately or with dietary supplements. Join a support group, exercise regularly and practice proper sleeping habits.

Preventing Vitamin D Deficiency

Vitamin D is as vital for mental health as it's essential for physical health. There is sufficient research to show that not having enough of the vitamin can lead to depression-like symptoms. People with depression have higher chances of having vitamin D deficiency. Prevent this from happening by adding food rich in Vitamin D to your diet and getting adequate sun exposure.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

BMC Psychiatry: Vitamin D deficiency and psychotic features in mentally ill adolescents: A cross-sectional study.”

Cleveland Clinic: "Vitamin D Deficiency.”

Frontiers in Immunology: “The vitamin D receptor and T cell function.”

HelpGuide: "Depression Symptoms and Warning Signs."

Issues in Mental Health Nursing: “Vitamin D and Depression: Where is all the Sunshine.”

National Institutes of Health: What You Need to Know.”

Neuropsychiatry: Depression and Vitamin D Deficiency: “Causality, Assessment, and Clinical Practice Implications.”

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