This blog about Vitamin D for Mental Health was originally published February 2018. It was updated with more great information in February 2020.
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Vitamin D is an essential fat-soluble vitamin. It’s sometimes called the “sunshine vitamin” because our skin makes vitamin D when exposed to the sun. Even though we have easy access to sunlight most days, vitamin D deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency, especially for people living in northern countries like Canada. Like most vitamins, vitamin D has many functions in the body. It’s mostly known for its ability to help build strong bones. But, vitamin D is also important for a healthy immune system, digestive system, heart and blood, and mental health.
FUN FACT: More scientific articles about vitamin D have been published since 2000 than any other vitamin.
Let’s talk about the many roles vitamin D has in promoting good health. We’ll also go over the different forms of vitamin D and what exactly is a deficiency. Finally, I’ll give you three sources of this critical nutrient and how much we should get enough vitamin D for mental health. Let’s make sure you’re getting enough!
How Your Body Stores Vitamin D
Even though it is called a vitamin, vitamin D acts like a hormone! That means it’s produced in one part of the body (the skin), and travels through to act on another part (e.g. the bones and others).
Vitamin D (calciferol) isn’t “active” in our bodies. To do its wonders, calciferol first needs to be converted into the active form. This is a two-step process that happens in the liver and then the kidneys before it is active in the body.
Because vitamin D is fat-soluble, when you have more than enough, it gets stored in the liver. It isn’t flushed out in the urine like excesses of many other vitamins are so there is the risk of accumulating too much if you take too many supplements.
4 Reasons You Need Vitamin D
#1 – Vitamin D for Bones
Vitamin D is most known for its importance for bone health. Bones are alive and are constantly rebuilding themselves so they need a constant supply of nutrients.
How does vitamin D help your bones?
Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium more efficiently. The mineral calcium is one of the major players required to “mineralize” and strengthen our bones.
Vitamin D works with other hormones to ensure optimal levels of calcium in the blood. When it comes to calcium, the body always prioritizes having enough in the blood over the bones. The calcium in the blood is needed for critical functions like contractions of the heart and muscles. This is why it’s more important to maintain the calcium levels in the blood over levels in the bone.
When there is more than enough calcium in the blood, any excess is stored in the bones. This is when the bones are mineralized and strengthened. When there isn’t enough calcium in the blood two things happen to raise this level. First, vitamin D stored in the liver is activated to help absorb more calcium from food. Second, the body removes calcium stored in the bones to raise levels in the blood.
When we don’t get enough vitamin D (and calcium) regularly, bones can become weak and brittle. In children, severe vitamin D deficiency can cause rickets, and in adults it can cause osteomalacia. With less severe vitamin D (and/or calcium) “insufficiency” (as opposed to a more severe “deficiency”), osteoporosis can develop over the long term.
Having enough 25(OH)D (the active form of vitamin D) in the blood is associated with higher bone density. In fact, studies show that supplementing with vitamin D may reduce the risk of falls and bone fractures.
#2 – Vitamin D for Inflammation and the Immune System
Several studies have shown a link between low levels of vitamin D and immune-related conditions like atopic dermatitis and rheumatoid arthritis. In the lab, vitamin D seems to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Vitamin D can reduce immune response and inflammatory markers. Some studies in people with immune conditions like cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis and obesity, show that supplementing with vitamin D reduces some inflammatory markers in the blood, although not all studies agree. Many of these inflammatory conditions occur along with mental health issues suggesting that getting enough vitamin D is good for mental health because it can reduce inflammation.
Some researchers think vitamin D, due to its effects on the immune system, may also help with serious food allergies. A few small studies show that children with low vitamin D levels have an increased risk for food allergies. More research is needed.
#3 – Vitamin D for Digestion
Since vitamin D is fat-soluble, it’s absorbed along with fat in the diet. People who don’t eat or absorb enough fat are at risk of lower vitamin D levels. This can include people with many digestive issues such as celiac disease, inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) like Crohn’s & colitis, as well as people who have had gastric bypass surgery.
Interestingly, a healthy vitamin D status seems to go hand-in-hand with a healthy gut. There is a link between sub-optimal vitamin D, gut microbiome status, gut inflammation, and diseases of the gut like IBD and colon cancer. And, if you’ve been reading my blog for very long you’ll know there is a strong relationship between your gut bacteria and your mood..
#4 – Vitamin D for Mental and Brain Health
Vitamin D is important for brain health. Vitamin D is both neuroprotective (protects nerve cells) and neurotrophic (help nerve cells grow). Prenatal vitamin D status may play an important role in brain development, cognitive function (ability to think), and psychological function. Research shows that the children of mothers with low blood levels of vitamin D have a higher risk of developing schizophrenia later in life.
There is growing evidence of the links between low blood levels of 25(OH)D and symptoms of depression. There are vitamin D receptors in the parts of the brain that are involved with depression. While the relationship isn’t clear, research seems to be confirming that getting enough vitamin D is important for good mental health.
Some studies also show a link between low vitamin D levels and increased risk of brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and cognitive impairment.
Are You Getting Enough Vitamin D?
Forms of Vitamin D
Many vitamins come in more than one form. With vitamin D, it comes in two different forms: D2 and D3.
Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) is the plant-based form, while Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) is from animals. Both forms can help avoid developing rickets.
At higher doses, however, vitamin D2 is less potent than vitamin D3.
There are three main sources of vitamin D – sun exposure, foods, and supplements.
- Sun exposure
Our skin contains “pre” vitamin D. When exposed to UV rays from the sun, this “previtamin” is converted into vitamin D (calciferol). As a result, vitamin D levels decline in people throughout the winter when they get less exposure to the sun when they are wearing more layers and the days are shorter. Not getting enough exposure to the sun also affects mood.
The problem is that too much UV radiation can contribute not only to skin cancer, but also to dryness and other cosmetic changes in the skin over time, so it is important to consider ways to get enough vitamin D for mental health from foods and supplements.
Vitamin D is not naturally found in very many foods. The best sources of mood boosting foods high in vitamin D are fatty fish and fish liver oils. Some vitamin D is also found in beef liver, some cheeses, and egg yolks. Because these are animal sources, they are in the D3 form. Some is even already converted into 25(OH)D which is thought to be 5 times more potent than the regular D3 form.
FUN FACT: Fish liver oil contains vitamin D, but not fish oil – it’s the liver that stores vitamin D.
Naturally occurring plant sources of vitamin D2 include some mushrooms that have been exposed to the sun. Look for shiitake mushrooms. They contain the most vitamin D.
Because it’s naturally found in so few foods, vitamin D is also added to certain foods. This is called “fortification.” In fact, fortified foods are the main source of dietary vitamin D in the US.
Fortification of food with vitamin D can improve vitamin D status. Vitamin D fortified foods include milk, some orange juices, breakfast cereals, and yogurt. Check your labels to find out if yours has been fortified with vitamin D (it will be listed as an ingredient). You can also check which form of vitamin D was added: D2 or D3.
Infant formulas in Canada and the US are required to have at least 40 IU of vitamin D for each 100 kcal.
FUN FACT: Because vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, absorption from foods, drinks, and supplements is improved when taken at the same time as a fat-containing meal.
Vitamin D supplements come in both forms: D2 and D3. The plant-based D2 form is manufactured by exposing yeast to UV radiation. The animal-based D3 form is made from lanolin.
If you are at risk for vitamin D deficiency, your health care provider can test your blood for levels of 25(OH)D and recommend a course of action specific for you.
However, if you don’t have a professional recommendation for how much vitamin D to take, the safest way to supplement is to follow the instructions on the label.
Never take more than 4,000IU/day (100 mcg/day), unless told to by your licensed health care provider. That’s because too much vitamin D can become toxic. One effect of too much vitamin D is that blood levels of calcium can get too high. This can lead to “calcification” which can damage blood vessels, the heart, and kidneys. Getting too much vitamin D is mostly a risk when taking supplements; not so much from sun exposure or food intake.
And don’t forget to check with your doctor and/or pharmacist if you’re taking medications because vitamin D supplements can interact with some of them.
Breastfed infants are often recommended vitamin D drop and baby formulas must have vitamin D added to them. Speak with your licensed healthcare professional for recommendations.
Vitamin D Deficiency
Studies show that between 30-80% of people simply don’t get enough vitamin D. This deficiency is so common that some researchers have called it a “public health concern” and a “global problem.”
Vitamin D deficiency is when someone has less than 30 nmol/L of 25(OH)D in the blood. Ideally you want at least 50 nmol/L but no more than 125 nmol/L in your blood.
Vitamin D deficiencies can happen over time when people are not getting enough safe sun exposure, or are not eating enough foods containing vitamin D. It can also happen if the vitamin D is not being absorbed very well because of digestive issues or inflammation in the gut, or if the kidneys have trouble converting the “previtamin” D into the active form 1,25(OH)D.
People who are more likely to be deficient in vitamin D include:
- Pregnant and lactating women, and breastfed infants;
- Older adults;
- People with limited sun exposure (including athletes who train indoors);
- People with darker skin;
- People with digestion issues that prevent proper absorption (e.g. inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, etc.);
- People with obesity; and,
- People who have undergone gastric bypass surgery.
How much vitamin D do we need each day?
For adequate blood levels of 25(OH)D, how much vitamin D do we need to get every day?
To get enough vitamin D from the sun, a general rule is to get about 5–30 minutes of sun between 10:00 a.m. & 3:00 p.m. at least twice a week to the face, arms, legs, or back without sunscreen. You should put on sunscreen if you are going to be outside for longer.
When it comes to vitamin D from foods and supplements, in Canada and the US the “Recommended Dietary Allowance” (RDA) recommendations are:
- 10 mcg (400 IU) per day for infants under the age of one.
- 15 mcg (600 IU) per day for everyone aged 1-70 years old, including pregnant and lactating women.
- 20 mcg (800 IU) per day for everyone over the age of 70.
Vitamin D in foods and supplements may be measured in both mcg (micrograms) and/or IU (international units). The conversion factor is 40 IU = 1 mcg.
Vitamin D has many health-promoting roles in the body. Most of the evidence shows that vitamin D is important for bone health, but vitamin D also important for good mental health, a healthy immune system, digestive system, and heart and blood health.
Vitamin D is also the most common deficiency.
We can get vitamin D from sun exposure, some foods, and supplements.
The best way to know how much vitamin D you need is to have your blood tested if you’re at risk. If you don’t have a test or professional recommendation, following the label directions on your supplements can be a safe way to get enough vitamin D for mental health.
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