Depression is a common mental health condition that affects an estimated 19.4 million adults in the United States every year. That’s almost 8% of all adults in the country. It’s a complex, complicated disorder, and while we don’t know for sure exactly what causes it, there is some evidence suggesting that vitamin D deficiency depression might be something to consider.
Vitamin D is an essential nutrient your body can make as your skin gets exposed to the sun. It’s fat-soluble and works to promote cell growth and keep your bones healthy. It’s also beneficial for optimal immune function. Research has linked vitamin D deficiency to a possible increased risk of clinical depression. Though more research needs to be done to answer the question: does vitamin d help with depression, it’s worth looking at what we know so far.
Read on to learn more about vitamin D for depression, including what science says about the potential correlation between the two
, and the symptoms and causes of vitamin D deficiency.
Vitamin D and Depression: Is There a Correlation?
While there’s no conclusive evidence that vitamin D causes depression, a multitude of research suggests that there might likely be a link between the two conditions. Research also shows that vitamin D deficiency is found in a number of people who are living with several different types of depression, including those that stem from various health conditions. For example:
- Post-stroke depression (PSD): One study found significantly lower levels of vitamin D in patients who were living with PSD.
- Chronic spinal cord injury (SCI) related depression: A study was done to look at the link between SCI depression and vitamin D levels. Results found that people with depression from SCI might have drastically lower vitamin D levels.
- Gout and depression: In response to commonly found depression in gout patients, some research has been done to study the potential link between gout, depression, and vitamin D deficiency. Findings included a lower vitamin D level in some people who experience depression after a gout diagnosis.
- Multiple sclerosis (MS) and depression: Low vitamin D levels are a known risk factor for MS. This study looked at the potential correlation between vitamin D level and depression in people with MS. The research found that vitamin D levels correlate with depression risk scores in people (both men and women) living with MS.
- Postpartum depression: In a study that looked at risk factors, controversial factors, and protective factors associated with women and postpartum depression (PPD), it was determined that vitamin D deficiency might be a risk factor for depression after pregnancy. Additionally, it suggested that vitamin D may also be a protective factor against developing PPD.
- Pregnancy and anxiety, depression, and sleep quality: To address the relationship between pregnancy-induced anxiety, poor sleep quality, postpartum depression (PPD), and vitamin D levels, this review looked at 14 studies to try and determine if vitamin D can prevent postpartum depression. Conclusions again suggested that there is likely a direct association between vitamin D deficiency and PPD.
“An association of vitamin D deficiency and depression has been well studied, but the growing body of research is ongoing. It’s important to be mindful that low vitamin D can also impact fatigue, bone health, and the immune system, and perhaps not be solely causal to depression. These conditions can also influence overall wellness as well as low mood.”Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, MSW
Vitamin D Deficiency: Causes & Symptoms
Vitamin D is acquired through sun exposure and transferred to your liver and kidneys, where it converts into a hormone. It’s in this form that it can help your body absorb calcium. In short, to function properly, your body needs optimal levels of vitamin D. While one of the most common causes of vitamin D deficiency is not getting enough exposure to sunlight, there are other causes, too.
Some causes of vitamin D deficiency can include:
- Crohn’s disease — Nearly 70% of people living with Crohn’s disease have a vitamin D deficiency. This is largely thought to be due to inflammation in the intestines, which might prevent proper absorption.
- Cystic fibrosis — Also due to impaired absorption and a lack of digestive enzymes, people with cystic fibrosis may experience deficient levels of vitamin D.
- Celiac disease — Especially in children, celiac disease might increase the risk for vitamin D deficiency.
- Liver disease — It’s estimated that more than 90% of people with liver disease might be vitamin D deficient.
- Kidney disease — Chronic kidney disease has been linked to low levels of vitamin D. It’s believed this can be attributed to kidneys not functioning properly, which might mean they’re unable to convert the nutrient into an active form.
- Obesity — While it’s not yet determined for sure why, it’s common for vitamin D deficiency to be seen in people who are obese.
- Weight loss surgery — Weight loss surgery and a higher risk of vitamin D deficiency is not uncommon.
- Lack of mobility — It’s thought that a lack of mobility may contribute to deficient vitamin D levels as a result of less sun exposure, poor diet, or not getting enough supplements.
- Age — Multiple risk factors link age to vitamin D deficiency, including spending less time outdoors, reduced intake, and increased adiposity (having excessive fatty tissue).
- Human breast milk — Breast milk (and formula) have lower levels of vitamin D, which may contribute to infants developing a deficiency and needing a supplement.
- Skin color — Research has shown that people with darker skin pigmentation might need more exposure to the sun to get sufficient vitamin D.
- Certain medications such as:
- Seizure-control drugs
- High-cholesterol medications
- Weight loss drug — orlistat
- Tuberculosis drug — rifampin
Common symptoms of vitamin D deficiency can include anything from rickets in children (which is rare) to pain, soreness, and weakness in muscles. Other symptoms can include:
- Bone pain
- Muscle aches and cramps
- Joint pain or weakness
- Altered mood, like depression
Treatment of Depressive Symptoms Using Vitamin D Supplement
While more research needs to be done to definitively answer the question: does vitamin D help with depression, we do know enough to understand that low levels of vitamin D can lead to depression-like symptoms.
We can also determine that people who live with depression have a higher chance of experiencing vitamin D deficiency. As a result of the research we do have, getting enough vitamin D-rich foods in your diet and sun exposure might be two helpful ways you can treat some of the symptoms of depression.
“It’s not yet known if vitamin D is a direct cause of depression, so it’s important to be comprehensive in the approach to treat it. Vitamin D supplements have myriad health benefits, including bone and heart health. Still, working with a therapist and psychiatrist can be the best approach for understanding all treatment options. These can include antidepressants, any supplements, and your personal medical and health profile.”Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, MSW
If a simple blood test shows that your vitamin D levels are lower than they should be, and you’re also experiencing some symptoms of depression, you can:
- Get more sun
- Take vitamin D supplements — depending on your levels, you can take a daily over-the-counter supplement, or if your deficiency is extreme, your doctor might suggest a high-dose prescription to take once a week over the course of several weeks
- Add vitamin D-rich foods to your diet, or eat foods that are fortified with vitamin D
As with any mental health condition, it’s important to talk to your doctor or therapist if you’re experiencing increased symptoms or feel like your depression is worsening. Help is available, and you can find ways to manage your depression through therapy and other avenues.
Though it’s not yet proven, vitamin D for depression might be a helpful addition to a depression treatment plan (although it’s just one of many vitamins for anxiety). Depression is a treatable condition that you can learn to manage and control. The first step is just asking for help. If you can’t meet with a therapist in person, consider online therapy options.