Would you like to improve your mood, have more energy, avoid anxiety, and lower your cravings for carbohydrates? Vitamin D (the “sunshine vitamin”) may be just what you need! In fact, vitamin D is one of the most researched vitamins for enhancing mood and avoiding common forms of depression.
As a physician who routinely checks vitamin D blood levels, I made an interesting observation a few years ago.
For a couple of years, I noticed that EVERY patient who came to me on anti-depressants (and there were a lot of them), had vitamin D deficiency on their lab work.
Although I eventually found a couple of patients who had depression with normal vitamin D levels, there was clearly an association between low vitamin D and depression. I started asking myself whether the epidemic of depression was at least partially due to nutrient deficiencies. As more research is published, more evidence is accumulating.
So why is there a correlation between depression and low vitamin D, and how would a simple vitamin help us be in a better mood? Read further to understand why maintaining optimal blood levels of vitamin D is crucial for protecting brain chemistry from imbalances that can cause depression, anxiety, and loss of energy and motivation.
Finding #1: Seasonal Affective Disorder – “Winter Blues” and Vitamin D Deficiency.
Do you ever experience anxiety, depression, sadness, irritability, or carbohydrate cravings, which are worse during the winter months? These are typical symptoms of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). Researchers have known for a long time that anxiety and depression, along with lethargy and sleepiness, increase during winter months for many people, especially those in northern latitudes with longer winters and less sunshine.
These symptoms often resolve during the summer when plenty of sunlight is available, which increases our internal production of vitamin D. However, supplementing in the winter may be just as effective. One study showed that SAD symptoms improved in just 5 days with vitamin D supplementation, with noticeable increases in feeling enthusiastic, inspired, alert, active, and attentive. Those patients not receiving the vitamin D experienced more symptoms of stress, nervousness, and irritability.
In my experience, this common form of depression is not just limited to the winter months. With Americans spending less time outdoors, even in warm months, vitamin D levels often stay low. This puts people at risk of SAD on a chronic basis, which would typically simply be diagnosed as depression. And, unfortunately, anti-depressants are often the immediate (and only) treatment offered.
Note: I am a firm believer in the use of anti-depressants in select patients, but only if nutrition, lifestyle, and stress factors are addressed FIRST! For me, proper nutrition, sleep, stress management, and fitness activities are always foundational to managing depression, with anti-depressants to be used cautiously.
Finding #2: Depression improves with Vitamin D.
Multiple studies have been performed testing the hypothesis that vitamin D supplements improve mood. Unfortunately, many of the studies were flawed. They either did not test blood to see if low vitamin D was present as a cause, or they did not use adequate vitamin D doses to resolve any deficiency.
You see, there are many causes of depression. Vitamin D is just one nutrient deficiency that is associated with depression. Iron, B-vitamins, and Omega-3’s are other nutrients necessary for brain health. So blood tests must be done for any good quality vitamin D study. This was discussed in the journal Nutrients in March 2014. Their conclusion was that the research studies that had no “flaws” actually showed that improving vitamin D levels, when deficiency was present, consistently improves depression.
And the effect of restoring vitamin D blood levels to normal was comparable to the effect of anti-depressant medications! Did you get that? The effect of this simple vitamin was just as powerful as prescription anti-depressants with their many side effects and higher costs!
They found that blood levels had to get in to at least 20 ng/mL, a relatively low blood level for an effect on mood.
Finding #3: Depression is less common in those with adequate Vitamin D.
This research from 2013 was published in Nutrition Research. The researchers found that there was a 43% lower risk of depression and a 67% lower risk of panic in those with vitamin D blood levels of at least 30 ng/mL. Another study in the International Archives of Medicine found an 85% increased risk of depression in those with vitamin D deficiency.
We now know from animal studies that vitamin D supports the production of serotonin in the brain, the same chemical that is increased by common anti-depressants. We also know that vitamin D receptors are present on brain cells, so there may be other direct effects of vitamin D on brain function and mood.
- Limit sun exposure. Although sunshine, in limited amounts, is “good” for us, radiation from too much sun increases skin cancer risks. Be prudent when spending time outdoors. Protect your face, neck, and hands (high cancer risk areas) from sun exposure. Avoid tanning beds, which also increase cancer risks.
- Know your vitamin D blood level. I recommend keeping it in the 50-100 ng/mL range.
- Supplement with natural Vitamin D-3 capsules. The benefits for brain health, bone strength, and a healthy immune system are more than enough to justify establishing this as your routine. I recommend a natural version of Vitamin D-3, pre-dissolved in olive oil for maximum absorption.
- Dose appropriately. 15,000 IU per week (3 capsules) is my minimum weekly recommendation for teens and adults and is a very safe dose. A typical minimum recommendation is 1 capsule per day on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Many individuals will need more. A rule of thumb is to not exceed 3 capsules per week per 100 lbs of body weight without checking blood levels, i.e. < 100-150 lbs = 1 capsule on M-W-F, 150-250 lbs = 2 capsules on M-W-F, > 250 lbs = 3 capsules on M-W-F.
There is no question that we need adequate vitamin D blood levels to enjoy optimum health, including brain health and a normal mood. And what a blessing it is to experience all the joys that life has to offer. Truly, life is too short to let something like a vitamin deficiency rob you of the energy and enthusiasm that is ours when we are living at our potential.
And remember, Optimum Health is always worth the effort…
For Optimum Health,
Rick Tague, M.D., M.P.H.