Healthy vitamin D levels may help prevent or treat depression, but deficiency is common. Getting vitamin D from sun, food and proper supplementation is key.
Many scientists, doctors, and researchers think that the occurrence of these two epidemics is not a coincidence and that there’s a direct link between vitamin D and depression. (3)
First let’s take a look at the many ways vitamin D supports brain health and function and how it works to mitigate depression.
Then we’ll discuss the best ways to raise vitamin D levels and the dosages recommended specifically to help prevent or treat depression.
Vitamin D: Essential Brain Nutrient
A healthy brain is the first line of defense against depression and other mental disorders.
And vitamin D is essential for brain health throughout all stages of life.
Studies show adequate vitamin D levels will elevate your mood, improve your memory, and increase other cognitive abilities. (6)
Insufficient vitamin D is linked to an array of mental disorders in seniors including depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and dementia. (7)
Vitamin D is also protective against a long list of diseases including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and osteoporosis. (8)
How Vitamin D Alleviates Depression
It’s not fully understood how vitamin D works to alleviate depression, but a prevailing theory is that it boosts levels of brain chemicals called monoamines.
This group of neurotransmitters includes serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine — all feel-good brain chemicals necessary for a positive mood. (9)
Most antidepressant medications work by increasing monoamines in the brain and it’s thought that vitamin D may do the same. (10)
A relatively new theory of depression is that it is not caused by a neurotransmitter imbalance but is actually a result of chronic brain inflammation.
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One study found that suicidal patients had low vitamin D levels and high concentrations of compounds that promote inflammation.
Vitamin D may reduce depression by being anti-inflammatory. (11)
Interestingly, vitamin D receptors have been found in regions of the brain linked to depression. (12)
It also helps your brain stay young by increasing its neuroplasticity, its innate capacity to change, renew and reprogram itself throughout your lifetime. (15)
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What Research Shows About Vitamin D and Depression
There have been many studies that confirm the correlation between low vitamin D and depression. (16)
Here are some of the latest research highlights.
A major meta analysis of studies that included over 31.000 participants concluded that low vitamin D is linked to depression. (17)
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Another meta analysis covering over 3,000 participants found that vitamin D supplementation caused a reduction in symptoms in people with clinical depression. (18)
Another study linked vitamin D deficiency to depression in seniors over age 65. (19)
Seniors with the lowest levels of vitamin D are 11 times more likely to be depressed than those with normal levels. (20)
One systematic review of studies concluded that vitamin D compares favorably to fluoxetine (Prozac) as an antidepressant. (21)
Vitamin D and SAD
Vitamin D has proven beneficial for a specific kind of depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
SAD is characterized by low energy, blue mood, and carbohydrate cravings experienced during the shortest, darkest days of winter.
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It’s widely believed that SAD is caused by a change in the levels of mood-boosting serotonin and the sleep hormone melatonin due to lack of daylight.
However, when adults with SAD are treated with vitamin D supplements, their mood improves and other SAD symptoms diminish. (22)
Why There’s Still Doubt That Vitamin D Helps Depression
With this much evidence it may seem puzzling that there’s still some doubt as to whether vitamin D is beneficial for depression.
The main reason is that it’s still not clear whether low levels of vitamin D cause depression, or whether depression leads to insufficient vitamin D since people who are depressed are less likely to spend time outside. (Sunlight on the skin allows the body to produce vitamin D.)
There are other factors that cloud the issue as well.
Most people feel happier when they get outside, but is it the vitamin D?
Sunshine on its own is a proven mood booster independent of vitamin D.
Exposure to ultraviolet light outdoors causes an increase in feel-good endorphins. (23)
Being outside in daylight resets your circadian rhythm to encourage a good night’s sleep, another proven mood booster.
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Also, stress contributes to depression and being outdoors is a proven stress buster.
And if you are engaging in physical exercise when you’re outdoors, it could be the exercise and not the vitamin D responsible for making you feel happier.
Exercising outdoors reduces depression and stress while increasing vitality and enthusiasm even more than exercising indoors. (24)
Just looking at plants increases feelings of happiness, even in those with depression. (25)
You can see how separating and testing these various factors would be complicated.
For these reasons, the experts agree that more research on vitamin D and depression is needed before they can say for certain that vitamin D effectively treats depression.
Why It’s Hard to Get Enough Vitamin D from Sunlight
Our distant ancestors spent most of their time outdoors and made all the vitamin D they needed from sunlight.
But most of us now spend the majority of our time indoors and, when we do go outside, we cover up with sunscreen.
The latitude and the time of year are two major factors that affect how efficiently you manufacture vitamin D.
In the US, if you live north of San Francisco, St. Louis, or Richmond, the sun’s rays are too weak to trigger vitamin D production most of the year.
It’s only when the UV index is greater than 3 that the needed UVB wavelengths are present in sufficient amounts to produce vitamin D. (26)
You can find your current local UV index at Weather.com.
Since that’s not always convenient to do, here’s a simple tip for determining whether the sun is strong enough to synthesize vitamin D.
Standing outside in sunlight, look at your shadow.
The more direct the sun’s rays are, the shorter your shadow will be and the better it is for vitamin D formation.
A rule of thumb is that if your shadow is equal to your height or longer, the sun’s rays strike at too great an angle to promote vitamin D formation. (27)
Having naturally dark skin, being elderly or obese, or having a chronic illness such as diabetes or liver disease increases your need for vitamin D. (28)
Beat Depression with Vitamin D Supplements
Since most people can’t get adequate vitamin D from the sun year-round, this leaves two alternatives.
You can eat vitamin D-rich foods or take a vitamin D supplement.
It’s very difficult to get all you need from food.
There are only a few foods that contain vitamin D3, the best utilized form.
The best food source by far is cod liver oil or fish oil with salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines trailing far behind. (29)
Some foods contain vitamin D2, such as mushrooms or fortified milk or orange juice, but the body cannot use the D2 form well.
This makes vitamin D supplementation the only viable option for raising vitamin D levels enough to help depression.
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You can greatly increase your chances of buying an effective vitamin D supplement with our 10-point supplement evaluation checklist.
When choosing a supplement, be sure to buy from a reputable company you can trust.
A study on 55 brands of vitamin D supplements found that the contents diverged wildly, containing as little as 9% and as much as 146% of what was listed on the label. (30)
Vitamin D Dosages for Depression
The current US government recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for vitamin D is 600 IU per day, but this number is hotly contested. (31)
Some experts believe we need ten times this amount for good health. (32)
Psychiatrist Dr. James Greenblatt is an integrative medicine pioneer and author of The Breakthrough Depression Solution.
He’s found in his practice that vitamin D isn’t a cure-all for depression, but that a deficiency will definitely impair and prolong recovery from it. (33)
He recommends taking 2,000 IU to 10,000 IU per day or whatever amount you need to get your vitamin D levels in the range of 50 and 75 ng/mL.
The Vitamin D Council is a nonprofit organization that has one of the most comprehensive websites on vitamin D awareness.
They similarly recommend that healthy adults take 5,000 IU per day with an upper limit of 10,000 IU per day. (34)
Vitamin D is fat soluble and gets stored in your body’s fat cells and liver, so it is possible to accumulate too much of it.
Interestingly, excessive sun exposure does not result in vitamin D toxicity since your body has a way of regulating vitamin D production.
(As usual, the body knows best!)
Vitamin D Testing for Depression
The only way you can know your vitamin D status for sure is to take a 25-hydroxy vitamin D test. (35)
You can see your doctor about this or order a test online.
The Vitamin D Council offers vitamin D test kits for about $50 that you can do at home.
If you have depression, this is almost certainly a worthwhile investment in your mental health.
Vitamin D is so important for depression that ideally your doctor should run this test before prescribing you an antidepressant.
Vitamin D Does Not Take the Place of Antidepressants
Vitamin D alone is not a replacement for your antidepressant and you should not stop taking your medication without speaking with your doctor.
Unfortunately, vitamin D doesn’t work for everyone with depression.
The Vitamin D Council is cautiously optimistic about vitamin D for depression, but warn their readers not to throw away their antidepressants.
Their executive director and renowned vitamin D expert Dr. John Cannell states:
“I wish I could tell you that vitamin D is a panacea for depression; it is not. It certainly helps some patients but most patients require treatment with conventional medication as well, and even then, some of those do not achieve full remission of their depression.” (36)
He suggests that if you have depression and want to try vitamin D, go ahead.
There is no harm in mixing antidepressants with vitamin D.
In fact, vitamin D has been proven to enhance the effectiveness of antidepressants. (37)
And if you do take measures to improve your vitamin D status, don’t expect immediate results.
It can take months before you notice a difference in your depression symptoms.
Vitamin D and Depression: Take the Next Step
There is a strong correlation between low levels of vitamin D and depression.
In the modern world, few people get the vitamin D they need from the sun or food.
Unless you live where you can spend time in sufficiently strong sunlight regularly, consider vitamin D supplementation.
Depression has myriad causes and vitamin D probably won’t take the place of antidepressants, but it can be an important part of the solution.