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Link Between Vitamin D Deficiency and Depression: Does Supplementation Help Symptoms?

Vitamin D is a crucial component to maintaining both physical and mental health. It is utilized by our bodies to help keep our bones and teeth in good condition by maintaining correct phosphorous to calcium ratio. In fact, research has shown that low levels of vitamin D are associated with cardiovascular disease, cancer, osteoporosis, obesity, and diabetes. Although it is documented that vitamin D is important for our physical health, not many people are aware of the fact that a deficiency in vitamin D can be linked to depression.

Link between Vitamin D deficiency and depression

Depression can be caused by a wide variety of factors including: major illness, death of a loved one, familial history of mental illness, current finances, personality type, drug abuse, etc. In most cases of major depression, there is no one cause that can be pinpointed – rather a collection of various factors that are hypothesized to collectively contribute to the condition. When it comes to vitamin D, researchers think that it is able to help regulate the neurotransmitters in your brain. It also has been shown to be of importance in various stages of brain development.

How vitamin D works in the brain

Your brain has a variety of receptors for vitamin D and the vitamin itself has been shown to operate similarly to neurosteroids. It is thought to have autocrine and paracrine properties within the human brain. In other words, it can play a role in both cellular signaling and communication. Without adequate vitamin D in the brain, it has been found that people experience potentially debilitating depression symptoms – and in some cases, more extreme mental health issues.

Certain researchers believe that vitamin D can have an impact on neurotransmitter levels. Some even go as to far as to say that vitamin D could increase the amount of serotonin in the brain. Low amounts of vitamin D have been found to slow the production of serotonin and can directly affect serotonin synthesis.

Research: Vitamin D deficiency and depression

Most research between vitamin D and depression has explored whether deficiencies of vitamin D in the blood is linked with depression. They also took a look at whether a vitamin D deficiency in your blood makes people more prone to developing depression. Finally, they took a look at whether supplementation of vitamin D could help individuals overcome symptoms of depression.

A majority of these studies demonstrated that there was a relationship between low blood levels of vitamin D and depression. With that said, there was no clear cut answers as to whether low vitamin D could have been a result of being depressed as well as whether supplementation could help symptoms.

People with lower blood levels of vitamin D are more depressed

In 2008 a study conducted in Norway determined that individuals with low levels of vitamin D in the blood were more depressed. This same study found that when taking large (therapeutic) amounts of vitamin D, the depression improved. The most profound impact in symptom recovery occurred amongst individuals with more severe symptoms. Unfortunately this study only examined individuals that were considered “overweight” and “obese” – so the study didn’t look at a random population. Therefore the results cannot be generalized.

Do vitamin D supplements help depression? Probably not.

A second study from Norway which was published in 2012 took a look at whether supplementation of vitamin D helped with depression symptoms. It found that although low levels of vitamin D in the body were linked to depression, supplementation did NOT improve symptoms of depression.

Finally a study conducted in 2012 in the United States found no difference in depression symptoms among women who took vitamin D supplements and those who took a placebo. This study took a look at over 36,000 postmenopausal women. Some have hypothesized that vitamin D taken alone does not work as well as when taken with calcium and critics claim that it should have been supplemented with calcium.

Others seem to think that the doses were not high enough to be considered therapeutic. Further research was able to confirm that vitamin D supplementation had no effect on depression in women.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22790678
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15589699
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18793245
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22573431

Depression from lack of sun exposure? The more likely culprit.

Some hypothesize that vitamin D deficiency is merely a symptom of depression that is caused by lack of sun exposure. Various professionals have stated that vitamin D supplements aren’t going to reduce symptoms of depression because the depression and deficiency in vitamin D are both symptoms of the same underlying problem: lack of sunlight.

Exposing the skin to sunlight allows your skin to synthesize large amounts of vitamin D. Similarly, renal exposure to sunshine (this is especially documented in cases of seasonal-affective disorder via bright light therapy) have been shown to improve symptoms of depression.  In the article I wrote called 10 Natural Cures for Depression, I cited sunlight as the number two natural cure – for some people it works wonders if they are getting low levels of sunlight.

Does low vitamin D cause depression?

The consensus is not yet out on whether vitamin D supplementation can help ease depression symptoms. In one study there was no link found, yet others have found that supplementation may work. Many people believe that in people with low levels of vitamin D, supplementation could help reduce depression symptoms to a certain extent.

We cannot jump to conclusions from the studies claiming that vitamin D is ineffective in treating depression because people experience depression for a variety of other reasons. There have been disputes regarding the levels of vitamin D that are utilized, measurements of depression, as well as intervals of supplementing vitamin D.

With that said, I personally think the idea of depression as a result of sunlight makes more sense than depression as a result of low vitamin D. Both the depression and low vitamin D may be correlated, but this correlation does not seem to indicate causation. These are both (likely) symptoms related to lack of sunlight exposure. Simply getting enough sunlight can have a profound effect on the brain, mood, and vitamin D levels.

If you believe that low levels of vitamin D are causing your depression, you could supplement it for awhile and determine whether or not you recover from your symptoms. If you live in a wintery climate and don’t get as much sunlight as people living in warmer areas with more sunlight throughout the day, then supplementation may be something to tinker with.

If you have experimented with vitamin D supplementation have you noticed that it helped with your depression? If you have tried vitamin D supplements to treat your depression, feel free to share your experience in the comments section below. Often times it is better to hear from people that have actually tried something for themselves as opposed to simply reading studies.

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