Most of us are familiar with vitamin D – also known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’ – and its importance for our bones and immunity. But did you know that research is now showing getting enough all year round is also key for your mental health and feeling sunny inside?
Read on to find out the symptoms of vitamin D deficiency, how to get tested, alongside my top tips on how to naturally bolster your vitamin D levels to help support your mental health.
What is vitamin D?
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, present in small amounts in certain foods and dietary supplements. It is also obtained when your skin is exposed to the summer sun, which triggers vitamin D synthesis. Vitamin D receptors can be found in your brain, heart, muscles and immune system.
The NHS recommends that we all supplement with 10mcg (400 IU) every day between October to March. This supplementation is particularly important during the winter in the UK, as our ongoing grey weather means we don’t have enough exposure to sunshine in the summer, and we get none in the winter.
Despite these clear NHS guidelines, a National Diet and Nutrition Survey showed that in the UK, 1-in-6 adults may be deficient in vitamin D. This is most likely because they are not consuming Vitamin D rich foods or supplementing as recommended during the autumn and winter months.
Some people find they need to take up to 1000mcg (4,000 IU) per day in order to ensure their serum vitamin D levels are optimal during the winter months. This can be due to having darker skin and genetics do play a role.
Could vitamin D deficiency impact our mental health?
Studies report that in England 1-in-4 people will experience a mental health problem of some kind, with 1-in-6 reporting that they experience anxiety and depression in any given week. Of course, mental health problems are multifactorial, but let’s look at reasons why vitamin D, alongside a healthy diet and lifestyle, may be a piece in the puzzle to help to support your mental health.
If you are deficient in vitamin D, you may experience symptoms of depression such as anxiety, mood changes, feelings of hopelessness, sadness and overwhelm, isolation, withdrawal, and a loss of interest in activities that previously you enjoyed. Low vitamin D levels below 40 ng/ml are associated with all of these symptoms in both adults and children.
There has been more research on the link between low Vitamin D levels and depression than any other type of mental illness. Research published in 2020 found that eight-week supplementation with 50,000 IU Vitamin D once every 2 weeks elevated serum levels of Vitamin D in people with mild to moderate depression and also significantly improved their depression severity. Another study published in 2022 found that people with a Vitamin D deficiency needed higher doses of antidepressant medications than those with sufficient serum levels of Vitamin D.
A large study carried out in 2017 included 7,518 Canadian adults. It compared their Vitamin D blood levels and their mental health via self-reporting methods. The categories included tracking emotional health, self-perceived mental health, self-perceived general health, and self-perceived stress and compared these against their serum levels of Vitamin D.
All four categories started to improve once blood levels reached 40 ng/ml and found that higher serum Vitamin D concentrations by each increment of 10 ng/ml (up to 1200 ng/ml), increases the probability of being in the best mental health and general health state by an average of 76%.
How do you know if you are vitamin D deficient?
The best time to get your vitamin D levels checked is in the Autumn. This gives you a starting point, to help gauge how to optimise intake over the winter months. The easiest and most effective way to find out if you are deficient is to do a blood test. Speak to your GP or you can order up a simple home finger prick test. This is relatively cheap with a quick results turnaround. Once you have obtained your vitamin D status you can then take appropriate action to boost if needed.
Three ways to boost vitamin D levels and support mental health
When we feel mentally resilient it has a big influence on the way we live our lives. We feel able to enjoy life, challenge ourselves and take on new and exciting tasks. The good news is there is plenty we can do naturally to support our mental health, the first being ensuring that our vitamin D stores are at optimal levels. This is especially true as we head towards the winter months, as we spend less time outside and more time snuggled up in the house.
- Consume foods that contain vitamin D such as oily fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, and sardines), liver, egg yolks, red meat and fortified milk and dairy products. Also try eating maitake and portobello mushrooms, if they have been exposed to UV light.
- Take a vitamin D food supplement Taking a daily vitamin D supplement ensures your levels remain topped up. The NHS recommends that we all take action to protect ourselves from vitamin D deficiency and suggest daily supplementation during the winter months.
- Aim to spend time outside even in the colder months Even though it’s chilly, we are often blessed with beautiful blue skies and a softer sun through autumn and winter. The sun has very few of the rays that make vitamin D in the autumn, and none at all by the winter, but being outside may help in different ways to boost the mood, supporting overall mental health and well-being.
We hope this has been helpful advice for you and your family, but please do get in touch if you need help with any health niggles, no matter how big or small.
- Vitamin D – Fact Sheet for Health Professionals
- Vitamin D and Depression: Where is all the Sunshine?
- The Influence of Vitamin D Intake and Status on Mental Health in Children: A Systematic Review
- Adult Psychiatric Morbidity in England – 2007, Results of a household survey
- Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey: Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, England, 2014
- British Nutrition Foundation survey reveals 49% adults unaware of UK Government guidelines for vitamin D
- Mental Health Facts and Statistics
- National Diet and Nutrition Survey
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- Serum 25-Hydroxyvitamin D Concentrations and Indicators of Mental Health: An Analysis of the Canadian Health Measures Survey
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- Vitamin D and Depression: The Evidence from an Indirect Clue to Treatment Strategy
- A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, 12-week trial of vitamin D augmentation in major depressive disorder associated with vitamin D deficiency
- Effects of vitamin D supplementation on depression and some involved neurotransmitters