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Vitamin D and Depression: Will Supplements Help?

April 26, 2013

We all know vitamin D is necessary for good health and that a lack of it can contribute to numerous health problems. Is depression one of those problems?

Research on the role vitamin D plays in mental health is growing. So far, studies have yielded links and tendencies between mood and levels of vitamin D, but no definitive answers.

Scientists cannot say whether low levels of this vitamin cause depression, or if depression causes production of vitamin D to drop. One thing researchers know is that vitamin D acts upon areas of our brain also associated with depression. This finding is important enough to warrant further study.

The Brain and Vitamin D

There are receptors for vitamin D in different parts of the brain. Receptors are docking stations on the surface of our cells. They chemically attract and connect with specific biochemical elements circulating in the body. Once a biochemical such as vitamin D docks at a receptor, it can do business with that cell.

So, the areas of the brain with receptors for vitamin D “do business” with vitamin D. They must need what vitamin D has to offer. This suggests that a lack of vitamin D in mood-related gray matter, where there are receptors for it, may be linked to the experience of depression.

One theory is that vitamin D is involved in the making and effectiveness of brain chemicals called monoamines. Serotonin is a well-known example of a monoamine. Antidepressants work by increasing the brain’s supply of serotonin and other monoamines.

If the presence of vitamin D is necessary for the natural manufacture of monoamines, a lack of vitamin D would cause a decrease in brain chemicals such as serotonin, contributing to depression.

What Vitamin D Research Has Learned

Despite the many questions remaining, vitamin D research is helping piece together the puzzle of depression, for instance:

  1. A lack of vitamin D might be one of several factors contributing to depression. (Although some people in studies have experienced an improved mood after taking vitamin D, researchers cannot yet determine if that was the cause of the improvement.)
  2. People who are depressed tend to stay indoors, and are less likely to replenish their supply of vitamin D with sunshine.
  3. Research carried out over short time periods may not be effective in studying the association between vitamin D and depression.
  4. People who are depressed and have adequate levels of vitamin D are less likely to be helped by taking vitamin D supplements.
  5. Supplements may help people who are depressed and already have low levels of vitamin D.

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