“Mental health” – one of the most vibrational buzz terms of the year 2020. With a COVID-19 pandemic, police brutality protests, a fight for gay rights, and not to mention a growingly-heated presidential election… no wonder the idea of nurturing our mind is raising awareness! There is a lot of stress gravitating in our world these days, but today, we are going to talk about how vitamin D, a nutrient that just so happens to be a nutrient that most people are insufficient in, works to improve mood and mental health!
What is Vitamin D?
We all know that we need vitamins and minerals to survive, but to say that vitamin D is only just an essential nutrient does not lend it nearly the credit it deserves! Vitamin D is a versatile compound that plays a role in the immune system, bone health, hormonal health, our nerves, our GUT, and also of course – our mental health! What is unique about vitamin D is that there are very few foods that we can get this vital nutrient from, and the only other way to get this nutrient so we can live is by getting enough sunshine exposure on our skin. If you’re thinking that walking outside from your car to work everyday is going to cut it… It’s just not.
In the 21st century, we spend most of our days indoors, behind windows and underneath ceilings. What is even more unfortunate is that vitamin D needs special conditions to activate itself inside of us. Melanin is a pigment underneath your skin that is beneficial for protecting your skin from sunburn, but when people have more melanin in their skin, they are also more likely to absorb less vitamin D from sunlight. The percent of the population who doesn’t get enough vitamin D ranges from 42 to 89% with deficiencies highest in Black and Hispanic populations4. With as much of a lack as there is with Americans’ vitamin D, there is a growing body of research that is aimed at understanding more about vitamin D, and the ways that (not enough) can affect our mental health.
How Your Brain Works when it’s Happy
So before we talk more about vitamin D, let’s talk about how our brain works when we are happy! You have probably heard that happiness is linked to a hormone known as serotonin. When the brain is working normally, our brain cells are able to talk to each other to activate the release of serotonin. When we make less serotonin, or when we are not able to pass signals from one brain cell to the next, we don’t have enough serotonin. So we may therefore feel less happy!
Vitamin D Deficiency and its Effect on the Brain
In the 2010 NHANES, studies confirmed that adults who are vitamin D deficient are at significantly higher risk for showing signs of depression than those who are not3. There are multiple theories that discuss possible mechanisms for this, but unfortunately the research has not yet pinpointed an exact reason for why this occurs. Some theories discuss the idea that vitamin D regulates the release of calcium regulation in between brain cells. Calcium is needed to keep serotonin moving in between brain cells. But unfortunately, more research is needed to confirm this theory. Regardless of the reason(s), we know the association is there and that vitamin D deficiency increases your risk for developing depression.
Vitamin D and Athletes/Active Individuals
Another realm that vitamin D can particularly influence is exercise and recovery. Vitamin D is important for allowing us to absorb calcium, which is a vital mineral for heart and skeletal muscle contraction5. Vitamin D also plays a role in the activation of stem cells! If you didn’t already know, stem cells are basically cells that haven’t decided what kind of cell they are going to become yet! We athletes especially need our stem cells to work properly because when we tear down muscle tissue during a workout, when our bone cells die from bone jarring activities, and when we just need new skin cells because we have a scrape, we need that vitamin D to guide our stem cells in the right direction!
Because of diversity in sports - in both environment and athlete melanin levels - there are sport-specific considerations as far as each athlete getting enough vitamin D. Athletes who play indoor sports or play an outdoor sport with a significant amount of clothing and/or gear on (i.e. football, cyclists, ice climbers, etc) as well as those who regularly apply sunscreen should monitor their vitamin D levels on a regular basis. Black athletes and Hispanic athletes should also be aware of their increased risk for vitamin D deficiency and should also be aware of the effects that not enough vitamin D can have on sports performance and recovery.
Fortified Foods and Supplementation
Those who are deficient in vitamin D should DEFINITELY consider taking a supplement, but should most certainly work with a dietitian or other health care professional who can order bloodwork and recommend the right amount for you according to your individual metabolism of vitamin D. Although there are not any foods that naturally contain significant levels of vitamin D, you can get it from fortified food products such as cow’s milk and UV radiated mushrooms (like the ones you can find at Costco and King Soopers!)
Lastly, and most importantly, because vitamin D is fat-soluble, it is capable of accumulating in your system. While it can be extremely difficult to get vitamin D toxicity with milk, mushrooms and sunshine; supplementing with vitamin D can certainly cause toxicity to occur if you are not working with a professional to tailor your dosage to the appropriate amount for YOU. We have multiple genes that are responsible for breaking down, absorbing, and activating vitamin D; so the safest and most effective way for getting your vitamin D levels in check is to work with a healthcare professional.
Need someone to optimize your vitamin D levels, and overall nutrition for improved mental health? If you have health insurance, you may qualify for up to 3 sessions with me that are COMPLETELY covered by your insurance carrier! These sessions require no referral, and I am in-network with the vast majority of Americans through their insurance carrier!
Reach out to me to set up your complimentary 20-minute virtual consult that you can access from the comfort of your own home using nothing but your phone!
Parva N R, Tadepalli S, Singh P, et al. (June 05, 2018) Prevalence of Vitamin D Deficiency and Associated Risk Factors in the US Population (2011-2012). Cureus 10(6): e2741. DOI 10.7759/cureus.2741
National Institutes of Health. Vitamin D Fact Sheet for Consumers. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Updated March 24, 2020. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-Consumer/
Cuomo A., Giordano N., Goracci A., Fagiolini A. Depression and Vitamin D Deficiency: Causality, Assessment, and Clinical Practice Implications. Neuropsychiatry. 2017;7(5):604-614.
Forrest K., Stuhldreher W. Prevalence and correlates of vitamin D deficiency in US adults. Nutrition Research. 2011;31(1):48-54.
Ogan D., Pritchett K. Vitamin D and the Athlete: Risks, Recommendations, and Benefits. Nutrients. 2013;5(1):1856-1868.