Sunday, 18 December 2011

Vitamin D and mental health: Clear away the clouds, make way for sunshine!

Vitamin D3; Cholecalciferol. No, we’re not back in high-school chemistry class struggling with compound names; we’re talking about “the sunshine vitamin” – vitamin D! We’ve all heard about “the sunshine vitamin” and how it helps maintain our bones and teeth, but did you know it also has functions related to maintaining mood and mental wellness?
Today I am going to discuss vitamin D and its relation to anxiety and depression.

Recent research into vitamins and their effects on the body have shown evidence for a relation between vitamin D and basic cognitive function, mood and general mental health and well-being, especially for depressive symptoms1.
This has important implications for those suffering especially from Seasonal Affective Disorder (where mood drops during seasonal changes), depression and anxiety, as well as other mental illnesses. There are a few theories out there regarding SAD’s prevalence in higher latitude regions. One of which regards seasonal fluctuations in vitamin D levels as the sun’s intensity and prevalence drops during the darker winter months.
Dr. Serdar Durson, author of “Vitamin D for mental health and cognition”, mentions that vitamin D and its receptors have been found to be involved in the development and progression of mental illness. Vitamin D (whose active form is more like that of a steroid hormone2) activates neuron receptors in areas of the brain that are responsible for regulating behaviour.
Further research into the field of vitamin D and its role in mental health and illness reveals that it is an important element of maintaining mental wellness. Vitamin D and its role in bone formation and calcium regulation has long been known and studied well but its likely link to mental illness such as depression, schizophrenia, anxiety and even alzheimers is only just being discovered.
Low serum (blood component) levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D (the inactive form of vitamin D) have been linked with various psychiatric disorders, including depression. In 1998 a pair of researchers4 supplemented 44 healthy people with either 400 or 800 IU of vitamin D daily for five days. They found that, when compared with a placebo group (receiving an inactive ‘dummy’ pill), the self-reported positive effect was elevated while the negative affect was reduced for either dose of vitamin D.
In a related study, vitamin D receptor knockout mice5 were found to exhibit increased anxiety behaviours. This isn’t to say that vitamin D necessarily has a mechanistic affect on mood or cognition as lower levels of vitamin D in the blood may just be an indicator of poor health – which then would lead to depressive symptoms on its own. There is also the potential that depression and its associated behavioural changes lead to lower levels of vitamin D as many depressed people tend to stay indoors, reducing outdoor activities
Given that there is some evidence for the affect of vitamin D on mental health and wellness, it could be a good idea to get some supplemental vitamin D, or even experiment with sunlamps and full spectrum lights. I find the idea of sunlamps appealing as the winter days grow shorter as it is easier to get some UV rays while the sun is less prevalent during the season.
I must caution, however, that if you decide to supplement with vitamin D pills that you first speak with your doctor and obtain clearance (as it could potentially interact with other medications or supplements you may be taking). Also, do not exceed the recommended daily intake of vitamin D unless otherwise advised by your doctor or medical counselor.

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1 -  Shipowick, CD; Moore, CB; Corbett, C; Bindler, R. 2009. Vitamin D and depressive symptoms in women during the winter: A pilot study. 22(3):221-225.
2 – Norman, AW; Roth, J; Orci, L. 1982. The Vitamin D Endocrine System: Steroid Metabolism, Hormone Receptors, and Biological Response (Calcium Binding Proteins).  3(4): 331.
3 -  Lee, DM et al. 2010. Lower vitamin D levels are associated with depression among community-dwelling European men. J Psychopharmacol. 0(0): 1-9.
4 – Lansdowne AT and Provost SC (1998) Vitamin D3 enhances mood in healthy subjects during winter. Psychopharmacology (Berl) 135: 319–323.
5 - A strain of mice bred for experimental procedures whereby the receptors for vitamin D have been de-activated through genetic manipulation.

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