The leading cause of disability throughout the world, depression is a major health burden. Not only does it hamper the lives of those who suffer from it, but it also causes problems at a national level thanks to the cost of treatment and lost work days. Could it be that a simple nutrient deficiency could be at the heart of the issue? We investigate the scientific evidence to discover: does vitamin D help with depression?January 18, 2022 5:43 pm January 18, 2022 5:42 pm
What is depression?
While lots of people associate depression with simply feeling very sad, in reality it’s a much more complex illness.
Depression encompasses many different symptoms, from feeling low or irritable through to changes to your appetite, libido and menstrual cycle, as well as disturbed sleep and aches and pains.(1)
Feeling down or upset is a normal part of life which will be familiar to all of us. However, if you experience these symptoms over a prolonged period of time, you may be suffering from depression. If you think this might be the case you should make an appointment to discuss it with your doctor.
Please note that this article is for informational purposes only; please chat with your doctor for professional medical advice.
What causes depression?
Scientists believe that a range of different factors cause depression, including biological, environmental and genetic elements.(2)
Certain events can also increase your risk of suffering with the illness. For example, major life changes, trauma and stress can play a role, as can developing another serious illness such as cancer. A personal or family history of depression might also be a factor.(2)
However it seems that there is no one, single cause of depression. Sometimes it can be difficult to tie depression to one particular event or circumstance.
Similarly, there isn’t any one particular treatment which works universally. Rather, you may have to try out a few different treatments before finding the one that works for you.
What are the main treatments?
Usually, your doctor will advise therapy, medication or both to treat your depression.
Therapy involves speaking to a qualified psychotherapist who will use talking therapy techniques to help you work through your feelings. Again, there are many different types of therapy including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), interpersonal therapy (IPT) and others.(2)
Different types of therapy can be done on a one-to-one basis, although you might also be offered group therapy or even online therapy.
Your doctor may also suggest that you take medication to help with your symptoms. There are a range of antidepressant medications available. For example, a group of antidepressants called SSRIs are commonly used to treat depression, especially if this is your first experience of it.(2)
Antidepressants help to manage chemicals in your brain which contribute to your mood. They take a while to ‘kick in’ – often several weeks – so it’s important to give them a chance to work.
While it might take a bit of time to find the right treatment for you, there’s a good chance that you will see significant improvements over time. In 2008, the World Health Organisation found that treatment for depression is successful between 60 and 80% of the time.(3)
Other scientists have suggested that, when treatment is not successful, it is often down to patients not taking their medication correctly.(3)
How is vitamin D linked to depression?
So far, nothing in our information about depression suggests that vitamin D might be a cause or a treatment. So, why has there been an upsurge of interest in using vitamin D to tackle depression?
To answer this question, it’s important to note that scientists have been interested in the role of diet in mental health for a very long time. Imagine if we could solve one of the world’s biggest health problems without the need for drugs or therapies, but simply by managing our diets? It would be brilliant news for sufferers of depression.
Research into this area has identified several nutrients that may be of interest, including iron, folate and vitamin B12.(3) Scientists have noted that deficiencies in these nutrients might be associated with depression.
Similarly, early research has linked vitamin D deficiency with depression.(3)
Vitamin D, light and seasonal affective disorder
As you will likely know, humans can get vitamin D from two sources. One is the food we eat, and the other is from exposure to sunlight. This allows us to make vitamin D ourselves.
Some scientists have investigated the link between sunlight, vitamin D and mental health issue such as depression and seasonal affective disorder. This is a type of depression which is closely linked with the seasons, usually meaning that people who suffer from it feel very low during the winter months but not as bad during spring and summer.
Researchers found that light therapy, which involves exposing yourself to a special bright lamp which mimics sunlight, may help SAD sufferers by reducing their depressive symptoms.(3)
Another group of scientists looked at whether giving patients light therapy or a dose of vitamin D was more effective for patients with SAD. They found that the direct dose of vitamin D worked better to reduce their symptoms.(3)
Furthermore, other research has discovered an interesting link between vitamin D deficiency and mental health complaints. For example. One study found that people over the age of 65 with minor depression or major depressive disorder had 14% lower levels of vitamin D than the control group.(3)
As yet, it isn’t totally clear how any potential link between vitamin D and mental health issues really works. However, some have suggested that it might be because of vitamin D’s role in brain development and in the hypothalamus.(3)