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February 4, 2023

If you’re one of the 29% of U.S. adults1 deficient in vitamin D you might have already noticed the tell-tale signs, like bone achiness, muscle weakness, and fatigue. However, you might be surprised to learn that not getting enough of this essential vitamin can lead to mood-related side effects as well. 

New research published in Pharmacological Research confirms that vitamin D plays a massive role in mental health and well-being2. Specifically, the umbrella meta-analysis found that people with lower levels of vitamin D were at greater risk of depression.


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Thankfully, achieving and maintaining vitamin D sufficiency can help.

How vitamin D status influences depression risk.

Scientists included ten meta-analyses in their review. They looked at studies published up until March 2022 that explored the link between depression and vitamin D. In total, the review looked at the results of 24,510 participants from 49 randomized control trials.  

Four of the meta-analyses revealed that people with lower levels of vitamin D were at increased risk of depression than those with higher levels of vitamin D. In particular, participants over the age of 50 with lower vitamin D levels had the greatest risk of depression.

The researchers concluded that, where depression is concerned, vitamin D has a protective effect, explaining that it’s involved in the synthesis of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which affect mood.

In addition, they found that achieving healthy vitamin D status through daily supplementation may lower the risk of developing depression: Ten of the meta-analyses revealed enhanced mood support for individuals taking vitamin D supplements compared to those on a placebo. 

Studies in which participants consumed more than 5,000 IU of vitamin D daily or the intervention lasted less than or equal to 20 weeks saw the greatest effect in reducing symptoms of depression.

Given that more than 264 million people3 are affected by depression globally, according to a 2018 Lancet review, and that rates of depression rose during (and in the wake of) the COVID-19 pandemic, this study is an important step forward in our understanding of the condition.

Social connection, regular exercise, and stress management are often touted as powerful tools in the prevention of mental health challenges. This analysis shows that achieving and maintaining a healthy vitamin D status may be beneficial, too.

However, more research is needed. The researchers note that the study did not specifically look at certain types or severities of depression e.g., mild, moderate, or postpartum). What’s more, the effect of environmental factors on vitamin D levels—such as sunlight, latitude, and time outside—was not considered.

Achieving healthy vitamin D levels.

So what can you do if you suspect you are deficient in vitamin D? There are three different ways to get more vitamin D—food, sunlight, and supplementation

Some foods naturally contain vitamin D, while others are fortified with it. Vitamin D-rich foods include egg yolks, trout, salmon, tuna, milk, and cheese. Unfortunately, the amount of vitamin D in a serving of any of these foods isn’t sufficient enough to help you reach that goal of 5,000 IU or more per day.

You can also get vitamin D from sunlight, but getting enough is near impossible thanks to a number of variable factors that impact cutaneous vitamin D synthesis (e.g., your age, biological sex, skin tone, latitude, climate, season, amount of time spent outside, etc.).

Daily vitamin D supplementation is, by far, the most reliable and effective way to reach and sustain vitamin D sufficiency. Leading health experts (and the results of this study) agree that consuming 5,000 IU of vitamin D per day is ideal for achieving optimal vitamin D status and maintaining whole-body health. (See mindbodygreen’s guide to choosing the best vitamin D supplement for your needs here.)


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The takeaway.

There’s a consistent link between higher levels of vitamin D and lower instances of depression in most of the scientific literature. However, it’s important to note that mental health conditions like depression are complex. 

Alongside healthy lifestyle staples—like movement, stress prevention, good sleep hygiene, and connecting with others—evidence suggests that taking a daily vitamin D supplement is one more way you can help support your overall mood and mental well-being.


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