Melancholy and Vitamin D Deficiency: Is There a Connection?

Vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin because your body can produce it when your skin is exposed to the sun.

This essential, fat-soluble nutrient helps keep bones healthy and strong, promotes cell growth, and benefits immune function. It may also play a role in depression, as researchers have noted that many people with depression have low vitamin D levels.

This article reviews the potential link between vitamin D and depression.

Researchers have found that many people who have depression also have low circulating levels of vitamin D in their blood, so it is possible that the two factors are related (1).

Particularly, a number of studies have suggested that low levels of vitamin D during pregnancy are connected to postpartum depression — a type of depression that happens in the days, weeks, and months after a person gives birth (2, 3).

Likewise, researchers have found possible associations between depression and low vitamin D levels in people with gout, chronic spinal cord injuries, stroke, and multiple sclerosis (4, 5, 6, 7).

Some small, high quality studies have noted that various groups of people experience improvements in symptoms of depression after they start taking vitamin D supplements (8, 9, 10, 11).

However, this potential benefit isn’t completely clear.

A large, high quality study in more than 18,000 people with depression found that taking 2,000 IU per day of vitamin D for 5 years did not lead to any significant differences in depression scores compared with taking a placebo (12).

Several other studies have also found that taking vitamin D had no effect on depression (13, 14, 15).

Because findings are so mixed, more research is needed to determine how vitamin D deficiency and depression may be linked, as well as how taking vitamin D supplements might affect symptoms of depression.

Summary

Many people who have depression may also have low circulating levels of vitamin D in their blood. However, research findings on this potential link are mixed. More research is needed.

Limited sun exposure, other lifestyle factors, and age can increase your risk of having low vitamin D levels.

Here’s more about the risk factors for vitamin D deficiency.

Limited sun exposure

Sunlight exposure is the primary source of vitamin D for most people. If you stay out of the sun, you limit your exposure. That can lead to vitamin D deficiency (16, 17).

The amount of sun exposure you need will depend on your local climate, the time of day, and the time of year. People with lighter skin tend to make vitamin D more quickly than people with darker skin (17).

Diet

Not very many foods are naturally rich in vitamin D. You can increase your intake by eating more of these great natural sources of vitamin D (18):

  • salmon
  • mackerel
  • other fatty fish
  • fish liver oils
  • animal fats
  • vitamin D-fortified food products, such as orange juice and cereal

If you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, there’s a chance you’re not getting enough vitamin D.

Vegan vitamin D sources include (18):

  • fortified plant-based milks, fruit juices, and grain products
  • mushrooms that have been exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light to increase their vitamin D content

Darker skin tone

In the United States, vitamin D deficiency appears to be more prevalent in Black people than in other populations.

One study using data from a large U.S. health study from 2011–2014 found that roughly 17.5% of Black people were at risk for vitamin D deficiency — compared with 7.6% of Asian people, 2.1% of white people, and 5.9% of Hispanic people (19).

This disparity may be because people who have darker skin have greater amounts of melanin, a natural pigment that gives skin its color. Melanin appears to inhibit vitamin D production in the skin (20).

If you are concerned about your vitamin D production from sun exposure, talk with a healthcare professional about what you can do. It’s also important to add more foods rich in vitamin D to your diet, such as (18):

  • trout or salmon
  • vitamin D-fortified mushrooms
  • vitamin D-fortified dairy or plant-based milk
  • eggs

Living farther away from the equator

Studies have shown that people living in northern latitudes, such as the northern half of the United States, may be more likely to have lower vitamin D levels (21).

If the area where you live gets less sun, you may need to spend more time outside to increase your sun exposure.

Obesity

A link exists between vitamin D deficiency and people with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher. Compared to people with a moderate weight, people with obesity may need to absorb more vitamin D to reach recommended nutrient levels (22).

If your BMI is 30 or higher, consider asking a healthcare professional about getting your vitamin D levels tested. They can help you come up with a plan to increase your levels. Doctors often prescribe a high dose vitamin D supplement to address a vitamin D deficiency.

Age

Age can contribute to vitamin D deficiency. As you get older, your skin becomes less efficient at producing vitamin D. Older adults also tend to limit their time in the sun and may eat diets with insufficient amounts of vitamin D (21).

Summary

There are several risk factors for vitamin D deficiency, and they affect many people. These include darker skin, obesity, advanced age, and limited sun exposure.

Depression and vitamin D deficiency are two distinct conditions, each with its own set of symptoms. If you are experiencing symptoms of either or both conditions, speak with a healthcare professional.

If you have a vitamin D deficiency, you may experience (18):

  • aching bones
  • fatigue or drowsiness
  • weakness and pain in your muscles and joints

Symptoms of depression may include (23):

  • overwhelming feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and helplessness
  • insomnia or excessive sleepiness, known as hypersomnia
  • loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • lethargy
  • excessive weight loss or weight gain
  • loss of appetite
  • problems concentrating
  • forgetfulness
  • loss of sexual interest
  • headaches or back pains
  • anxiety
  • thoughts of death or suicide

Summary

Vitamin D deficiency and depression have different symptoms, but it’s possible to experience both conditions at once. If you’re experiencing the symptoms above, consult a healthcare professional.

Vitamin D deficiency and depression are separate conditions, so they require different treatments. However, treating a vitamin D deficiency may also help with depression, although the research on this is mixed.

Treatments for vitamin D deficiency

A healthcare professional may advise you to address vitamin D deficiency and its symptoms by increasing your intake of this vital nutrient. Ways you can consume more vitamin D include:

  • taking vitamin D supplements
  • increasing your sun exposure
  • eating foods that contain vitamin D or are fortified with vitamin D

Treatments for depression

To treat depression, healthcare professionals commonly prescribe psychotherapy and antidepressant medications. These approaches can be incorporated separately or in combination with dietary changes, depending on your symptoms and treatment goals.

If your depression is related to a vitamin D deficiency, increasing your vitamin D intake may help relieve your symptoms.

Speak with a healthcare professional about your treatment options and what may work best for you.

If you’re experiencing depression, here are some other steps you can take that may help reduce your symptoms:

  • Join a support group. Support groups can help you connect with other people online, by phone, or in your community who are experiencing similar symptoms. They can offer compassion and encouragement.
  • Exercise regularly. Routine exercise can help reduce symptoms of depression by releasing “feel-good” chemicals like endorphins in your brain. Start out with about 30 minutes of cardio three times a week and add on days and minutes as needed (24).
  • Keep a regular sleep schedule. To cope with sleep issues related to depression, keep a regular sleep schedule. Try setting a sleep and wake alarm. You might also track your progress in a journal, recording how long you slept and the quality of your sleep (25).
  • Reach out to loved ones. Your friends or family could also be a source of strength as you cope with your symptoms. If you have a network of trustworthy, supportive people you can turn to about your depression, they may be able to help with your treatment efforts.

Summary

Vitamin D supplements are one of several potential treatment options for depression. If you think you’re experiencing depression or vitamin D deficiency, speak with a healthcare professional to help you find the right treatment.

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about the connection between vitamin D deficiency and depression.

Can vitamin D affect mood?

Yes, vitamin D does appear to play a slight role in mood regulation, although the jury is still out regarding its effect on depression.

One study found that vitamin D supplements could improve anxiety but did not find that they affected depression (26).

Researchers still don’t fully understand exactly how vitamin D might work to cause mood effects.

How much vitamin D do you take for depression?

A daily dose of 600 IU of vitamin D is recommended for most people, and it’s safe to take up to 4,000 IU without speaking with a healthcare professional, according to the National Institutes of Health (18).

However, a healthcare professional may recommend a higher dosage.

In high quality studies assessing vitamin D and depression, doses varied significantly — for example, from 4,000 IU daily for 12 weeks to a single 300,000 IU injection (8, 10).

However, it’s important to get your vitamin D levels checked before you begin taking high dose vitamin D supplements. You should also work closely with a healthcare professional to determine the right dosage for you.

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, so it can build up in your fat cells. For this reason, taking high doses over time may lead to vitamin D toxicity, which can cause high calcium levels, kidney stones, digestive problems, and neurological changes (18).

What other vitamins help with anxiety and depression?

Some other vitamins and minerals may also play a role in alleviating anxiety and depression, such as:

  • Omega-3 fats. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid, may have beneficial effects on symptoms of depression (27).
  • Vitamin C. Vitamin C can have antioxidant effects in the brain, so it may be able to help protect against cellular damage that could lead to depressive symptoms, according to animal studies. However, more research in humans is needed (28).
  • Magnesium. Magnesium deficiency may be linked to mood disorders, including depression, in humans. However, research results are mixed and inconclusive (29).
  • Iron. Iron deficiency may also play a role in depression, although more research is needed to understand how this might work at the cellular level (30).

How can you get enough vitamin D in the winter?

During winter, many people spend more time indoors, and it gets dark earlier in the day.

Additionally, people are more bundled up when they’re outside, so less skin is exposed to the sunlight. This can lead to inadequate vitamin D levels through the winter for some people.

This may also be one factor that plays into seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that typically occurs only during the winter months (31).

However, there are several ways to get more vitamin D during the winter:

  • Supplements. Taking a vitamin D supplement throughout the winter can help maintain your blood vitamin D levels even if you get less sun exposure.
  • Vitamin D foods. You can also choose more vitamin D-rich foods during the winter, such as vitamin-D fortified dairy or plant-based milk, fish like trout or salmon, or UV-exposed mushrooms (18).
  • Vitamin D lamps. UV lamps mimic natural sunlight to help your body produce vitamin D on your skin. These lamps are often a treatment option for SAD. If you’re interested in trying one, speak with a healthcare professional (32, 33).
  • Intentional outside time. Finally, you can spend intentional time outside on days when it’s not too cold. For optimal vitamin D synthesis, spend at least 10–30 minutes outdoors in the warmest part of the day (typically around noon) when the sun is shining (17).

Summary

The safe daily upper limit of vitamin D is 4,000 IU. Vitamin D may help with mood, and other supplements may also help with depression. Aside from taking supplements, there are several actions you can take to increase your vitamin D levels in winter.

Vitamin D is a key nutrient for your mental and physical health. Studies have found that low vitamin D levels are linked to depression and that taking vitamin D supplements may help improve depression symptoms in people with low vitamin D levels.

Fortunately, it’s easy to get vitamin D by taking supplements, spending more time outside, and adding vitamin D-rich foods to your diet.

If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression, it’s important to reach out to a trusted healthcare professional.

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