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?April 27, 2022 4:20 pm January 18, 2022 5:43 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.
If you’re in the UK, the NHS website can provide more information.
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 Behavioural 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)
"Vitamin D deficiency can lead to a number of health problems such as rickets and poor teeth, bone and muscle health.(7)"
Can taking vitamin D help treat depression?
Quite a few scientific studies have looked into whether taking a vitamin D supplement can help with your mood.
Many of these have looked at the effects of vitamin D in the general population (i.e. studied people who didn’t have depression).
For example, one study involved giving outpatients a vitamin D supplement in either a high (4000 IU) or low (600 IU) dose per day. The researchers asked the participants to fill in a wellbeing survey at the start and end of the study.
They found that both groups showed a significant improvement by the end of the study.(4)
A separate study looked at the effects of vitamin D supplementation in overweight and obese people. The participants were divided randomly into three groups, which were given different doses of vitamin D. Everyone also took the same calcium supplement throughout the study.
At the end of the research period, the researchers discovered that the groups who had taken vitamin D were showing improvements in depression (measured using the Beck Depression Inventory). The difference was even more pronounced in people who had scored as more depressed at the start of the study.(5)
However, other scientists have pointed out that the study is limited because it only included one sub-set of society (overweight and obese people), and that the participants didn’t need to have depression to take part.(3)
Should I start taking vitamin D for depression?
As of yet, there isn’t sufficient evidence to suggest that taking vitamin D can treat depression.
However, it is true that many of us are likely to be deficient in this vitamin. In fact, in the UK, the NHS recommends that everyone should think about taking a vitamin D supplement during the winter months. This is because it’s unlikely that we get enough exposure to the sun to make all the vitamin D we need.(7)
Vitamin D deficiency can lead to a number of health problems such as rickets and poor teeth, bone and muscle health.(7)
It’s also worth noting that your skin tone can make a difference to how much vitamin D you can make from sunlight. People with a light skin tone appear to be better able to produce vitamin D from sunlight exposure than those with darker skin tones.(7)
In short, increasing your intake of vitamin D may be a very wise health decision in any case, even if its effects on mental health are not completely clear.
Natural foods containing vitamin D
Taking a vitamin D supplement can be useful for some people. However, at Erbology, we always advise you to get your nutrients from healthy whole foods rather than tablets or capsules.
This is because you get greater transparency over what you are consuming, and you’re also likely to be getting a range of other healthy nutrients at the same time if you source your vitamin D from food.
For example, our Organic Hemp Seed Oil is a brilliant source of vitamin D. Yet it also contains vitamin E and omegas 3 and 6, all of which are needed to support your health. Try adding a spoonful to your daily routine to increase your vitamin D intake. You can take it by the spoonful, use it in salad dressings or drizzle it over your favourite dishes.
Alternatively, our Organic Hemp Seed Powder also offers vitamin D, plus a dose of healthy plant-based protein and fibre. It’s ideal for adding into a post-workout smoothie or mixing into breads and cakes.
Fatty fish such as salmon and tuna are famously good sources of vitamin D, too. However, if you follow a plant-based diet, you should also look out for mushrooms (which should be grown in light) and fortified products like plant milks or breakfast cereals.
Find the light
Thinking about your vitamin D intake may be useful in other ways when it comes to your overall mental wellbeing.
For example, most of us get over 90% of the vitamin D we need from exposure to sunlight.(3) Meanwhile, it has been well documented that exercise can help with symptoms of depression and it is recommended by health providers such as the NHS for this purpose.(6)
This has led some researchers to suggest that combining light therapy with exercise might be a useful treatment as it brings together two elements thought to improve symptoms.
In one study, researchers put participants in three random groups. One group did aerobic exercise in bright light, another did the same in normal light, and the third performed a stretching and relaxation programme in bright light.
All groups showed an improvement in symptoms of depression. However, those who exercised in bright light also showed improvements in ‘atypical’ symptoms of depression, such as weight gain, social avoidance and fatigue.(8)
Another fascinating study undertaken by Mind asked participants to walk either outdoors or at an indoor shopping centre. The researchers then looked at the differences in their self-esteem, depression, and feelings of tension.(3)
Improvements in all categories were greater for the participants who walked outside. Mind calls this approach ‘ecotherapy’: taking time out in nature to improve your mental health.
Does vitamin D help with depression?
The evidence is not 100% certain at this stage, but there is some promising research which suggests that vitamin D may play a role in treating depression.
However, increasing your vitamin D intake through your diet is likely to be a good idea anyway, for many of us!
If you choose to take a supplement, be cautious, as some capsules or tablets can provide you with too much vitamin D. This can be damaging to your health. Instead, we’d recommend making a conscious effort to include more vitamin D-rich foods in your diet.
Meanwhile, try sourcing some vitamin D from the sun while exploring outdoor spaces and nature near where you live. The combination of fresh air, exercise and exposure to sunlight may just be a powerful trio when it comes to lifting your mood.
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