vitamin d and depression

Vitamin D and Depression: Is There a Link?

Last modified on February 15th, 2023

We’re continuing to learn about the powerful impact of vitamin D and also the effects of vitamin D deficiency. Recently, a study showed the potential links between vitamin D deficiency and inflammation. There is also growing evidence to show links between vitamin D deficiency and depression and other mental health issues.

Depression Related to Deficiency of Vitamin D

Our bodies need the proper amount of vitamin D to function in a healthy, optimal way, including our physical and mental functions. More evidence suggests a relationship between a lack of vitamin D and depression.

In a recently released meta-analysis looking at 41 studies, researchers theorized that taking vitamin D supplements can help alleviate depressive symptoms in people diagnosed with depression. There’s the potential that this research could show an alternative to treating depression.

  • Vitamin D is thought to regulate central nervous system functions and balance phosphate and calcium levels. Earlier animal research suggests it could contribute to the control of chemicals in the brain, which could be at least part of the association between vitamin D and mental health.
  • One of the study’s lead authors and a researcher at the University of Eastern Finland says the newly released findings of the meta-analysis will lead to high-level clinical trials in people with depression to help gain more understanding of the links between vitamin D and depression.
  • The new meta-analysis looked at more than 53,000 participants from 41 separate studies. These studies included people with and without depression and taking vitamin D supplements and placebos.
  • Across these studies, while the doses varied, the typical vitamin D supplement dosage was around 50 to 100 micrograms daily. In participants with depression, vitamin D supplements were found to be more effective than placebos in helping with depression symptoms.
  • Study authors said the vitamin D studies seemed most effective when administered in shorter bursts of under 12 weeks. In healthy people, however, placebos seemed to have more of an impact on depressive symptoms.

According to the published report, the results show that vitamin D supplementation potentially has benefits for people with major depressive disorder and clinically significant but milder depressive symptoms.

Depression is now the leading cause of disability worldwide, and antidepressants aren’t effective for everyone and can have side effects, demanding research into more effective treatment options.

While a growing amount of evidence shows possible links between vitamin D and depression, researchers point out that it’s likely complex.

  • For example, experts feel that vitamin D and depression could be connected because of an interaction of co-occurring conditions and lifestyle factors.
  • Someone with depression may have a harder time eating a well-balanced and nutritious diet, so they might not get enough dietary vitamin D.
  • People with depression could, in theory, be less likely to go outside, so their bodies aren’t synthesizing enough vitamin D from sunlight.

Why Does This Vitamin Affect Mental Health?

While the research on the relationship between vitamin D and depression is still ongoing, we know that vitamins, or a lack thereof, can have other effects on mental health.

Everybody’s tissue has vitamin D receptors, including our immune system, heart and muscles, and brain. Vitamin D is also the only vitamin that’s a hormone.

When we consume it in our diet, or our skin absorbs it, it’s transported to the liver and kidneys. It’s in those organs where vitamin D is turned into an active hormone.

Vitamin D activates genes regulating the release of neurotransmitters, including dopamine and serotonin. These affect brain development and function.

Vitamin D receptors are located on a few cells in the brain’s regions linked to depression.

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a mood disorder with depressive symptoms occurring during dark times when there isn’t a lot of sunlight. SAD coincides with a drop in vitamin D levels in the body, and SAD might result from changing vitamin D3 levels, affecting brain serotonin levels.

Vitamin D deficiency could also contribute to higher anxiety levels.

Are You Getting Enough?

If you aren’t getting enough vitamin D from diet or sunlight, you’re at risk of a deficiency. Most adults need 1500-2000 international units (IU) of vitamin D daily. Many people aren’t able to get enough from their diet alone. Vitamin D deficiency is one of the most common deficiencies worldwide. As well as the relationship between vitamin D and depression, having adequate levels may help protect against bone loss, type 2 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and heart disease.

Around one billion people worldwide have low blood levels of vitamin D. An estimated 63% of Hispanic adults in the U.S. have a deficiency, and 82% of African American adults.

Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency can include:

  • Frequent infections or illnesses
  • Fatigue
  • Back or bone pain
  • Low mood
  • Slow wound healing
  • Bone loss
  • Hair loss
  • Muscle pain
  • Weight gain
  • Anxiety

Causes of vitamin D deficiency or risk factors include:

  • Being older
  • Having dark skin
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Not eating a lot of dairy or fish
  • Living far from the equator
  • Working or staying most of the time indoors
  • Working night shift
  • Having chronic kidney disease
  • Hyperparathyroidism
  • Liver disease
  • Health conditions affecting nutrient absorption like celiac or Crohn’s
  • Having gastric bypass surgery
  • Taking medicines affecting vitamin D metabolisms, such as steroids or statins

While, again, more research is needed, some of the most recent research coming out does indicate there are links worth investigating as far as vitamin D and depression. One of the most recently released studies found that vitamin D supplements can have a small-to-moderate impact on depressive symptoms in adults.

Researchers found that vitamin D supplementation equal to or exceeding 2000 individual units (IU) per day could help reduce depressive symptoms, but they noted their results had low certainty. If you’re experiencing depression, you can have your medical provider do a blood test to check your vitamin D levels and find out if you should supplement.


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