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Vitamin D and Depression: What’s the Link?

Medically reviewed by Paul Ballas, D.O.
Written by Anika Brahmbhatt
Posted on July 29, 2021

If you’re living with depression, you may be wondering whether vitamin D can affect your mental health. Some members of MyDepressionTeam are already reporting benefits from the nutrient. “Being low in vitamin D especially makes me drained,” one member shared. Another wrote, “I need to start taking vitamin D. My levels are always so low.”

Researchers have debated whether a vitamin D deficiency is a direct risk factor for depressive symptoms. Some evidence suggests that low vitamin D levels could lead to depression, whereas other researchers have indicated that more studies are necessary to determine whether a link exists. In order to make informed decisions about whether or not to adjust your vitamin D intake, it’s a good idea to consider a few key points.

What Is Vitamin D?

Vitamin D, known as the sunshine vitamin, is a nutrient that your body needs to make your muscles move, help your nerves send signals, and allow your immune system to fight off bacteria and viruses that can make you sick. Vitamin D is also important in ensuring bones can absorb the calcium they need to be strong and healthy.

There are two kinds of vitamin D: vitamin D2 and vitamin D3. Vitamin D2 is mostly found in plants, mushrooms, and yeast. Vitamin D3 can be found in oily fish and is also made in the body during sun exposure. Additionally, vitamin D3 is later converted to 25-hydroxy-cholecalciferol, which helps turn on and off the genes that allow vitamin D to carry out its function in the body.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, foods that are good sources of vitamin D include:

  • Beef liver
  • Fortified cereal
  • Fish (such as salmon, sardines, swordfish, and cod liver oil)
  • Egg yolks
  • Fortified milk and orange juice

Your body breaks vitamin D down into its active form, called 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D — which is also known as calcitriol and can be found as a supplement. This active form of vitamin D can affect the cells involved in the immune system.

Vitamin D Deficiency and Depression

There’s a common belief that not getting enough vitamin D can contribute to major depressive disorders and other mental health conditions. Some experts point out the potential mental health benefits of taking vitamin D supplements, but they also note that the field still isn’t sure whether low levels of vitamin D really cause depression.

Cleveland Clinic cites depressive symptoms among the potential outcomes of a vitamin D deficiency, in addition to other psychiatric symptoms including mood changes and physical symptoms such as fatigue, pain, and cramps.

Another point to consider is that vitamin D insufficiency is also associated with physical chronic conditions, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, and osteoporosis. Having depression can make managing these conditions more difficult, research shows.

Some people experience changes in mood as a result of living in climates with limited sun exposure. Most people get 90 percent of their vitamin D from sunlight, so staying indoors for extended periods of time can significantly impact the amount of vitamin D a person gets. As one MyDepressionTeam member noted, “When we lived in Oregon … my vitamin D level dropped so low that my depression worsened. We are now back in sunny California and my depression is better. I try to get some sun at least three times per week.”

Although low vitamin D levels have been associated with seasonal affective disorder, it’s still undetermined whether vitamin D supplementation can be considered a successful remedy.

Should You Take Dietary Supplements?

It’s important to have a conversation with your health care provider if you’re considering taking supplements to increase your vitamin D levels. Even if you are vitamin D deficient, your vitamin D status is only one aspect of your mental health and well-being. Speaking with a doctor who is familiar with your medical history will be helpful in determining which path is right for you.

Additionally, you should speak with your health team before taking vitamin D supplements as taking too much can have adverse side effects. National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements warns that too much vitamin D can cause nausea and vomiting, muscle weakness, confusion, pain, dehydration, and kidney stones, among other side effects. Vitamin D can also interact with some medications, so don’t start any supplementation plan before speaking with your physician.

Talk With People Who Understand

On MyDepressionTeam, the social network and online support group for people with depression and their loved ones, members discuss the chronic nature of the disease. Here, more than 138,000 members from across the world come together to ask questions, offer advice and support, and share stories with others who understand life with depression.

Are you working to increase your levels of vitamin D? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation on MyDepressionTeam.

Posted on July 29, 2021
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Paul Ballas, D.O. is an attending psychiatrist at Friends Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Anika Brahmbhatt is an undergraduate student at Boston University, where she is pursuing a dual degree in media science and psychology. Learn more about her here.

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