Vitamin D and Depression: New Research

April 8, 2015

Charles Hodges

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Charles Hodges

A Word from Your BCC Team: You’re reading Part Three in a four-part BCC Grace & Truth blog mini-series. Today in Part Three, Charles Hodges, MD, explores new research into Vitamin D and Depression. You can also read Part One in this series by Paul Tautges: 3 Biblical Journey Markers When Working Through Depression.  And you can read Part Two, also by Dr. Hodges at: Mood, Medicine, and the Value of Emotions.

New Research

I am always interested in research that has anything new to say about depression. Millions of Americans have been diagnosed with depression, and billions of dollars are spent each year to treat it. It is always encouraging when researchers are looking for a better answer than the time honored but unproven chemical imbalance theory.

For at least the last decade, a discussion has been going on about the role of Vitamin D in depression. Some of the studies have shown that a lack of the vitamin could be involved and others have not. It has long been noticed that people who live in the northern parts of the country that do not get a lot of sunlight in the winter also seem to struggle more with sadness. The increase in winter depression in northern states has been large enough to get its own diagnostic category: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

The connection between long dark nights and short days with depression in January has led more than a few observers to wonder what the sun does for us that helps depression in June. Since it is well known that sunlight stimulates the formation of vitamin D in our skin, researchers have looked one more time at the relationship between vitamin D levels and the sadness of depression.

Researchers at Oregon State University conducted a study that looked at vitamin D levels and depression[i] in 185 female college students in a 5-week study. The students had their blood tested for vitamin D levels. They also took a depression survey every week for five weeks. The results showed that the women with low vitamin D levels were more likely to have clinically significant symptoms of depression.

“Significant symptoms and vitamin D insufficiency were common and differed by season…low vitamin D levels were associated with clinically significant depressive symptoms.” They also noted the differences between the women in depression could be explained in part by the seasonal changes in their vitamin D levels.[ii]

The researchers did not believe that the results of the study conclusively proved that a lack of vitamin D would cause depression. Nor did they believe that we all ought to run out and buy a bottle of vitamin D caplets to ward off depression. They did think that they needed to do more research.

The lead author David Kerr said, “Depression has multiple powerful causes, and if vitamin D is part of the picture, it is just a small part. But, given how many people are affected by depression, any little inroad we can find could have an important impact on public health.”[1] While the researchers stopped short of recommending anyone take vitamin D for depression, they did note that anyone at risk for vitamin D deficiency should talk with their doctor about taking it.

The Take-Away for Biblical Counselors

So what is the take-away for biblical counselors who are counseling people who struggle with depression? The most important first assignment I give any individual struggling with sadness is a trip to their doctor for a complete history and thorough physical exam. And, yes, that would include blood tests that could include a vitamin D level along with other important levels.

The really good news in this study is that once again someone is doing real research that is looking for a better explanation of the cause for depression. The medical concept of depression has been stuck in the 1980s for 35 years. And now medical research appears to be moving forward.

I have often quoted statistics that would tell us that 90% of those labeled with depression do not have a disease but are dealing with normal sadness. But, that still leaves 10% who struggle with depression and need a better explanation. Vitamin D may not be the entire answer, but it is a place to start.

 Join the Conversation

 What do you believe is the role of biology/chemistry, including Vitamin D, in depression?

[i]Oregon State University. “Low vitamin D levels, depression linked in young women, new study shows.” ScienceDaily, 18 March 2015.  www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150318145501.htm

[ii]David C.R. Kerr, David T. Zava, Walter T. Piper, Sarina R. Saturn, Balz Frei, Adrian F. Gombart. “Associations between vitamin D levels and depressive Symptoms in healthy young adult women.” Psychiatry Research, 2015; DOI: 10.1016/j.psychres.2015.02.016

 


3 thoughts on “Vitamin D and Depression: New Research

  1. It is good to know what thinking is going on “out there”. As you have pointed out, this study merely shows some association between Vit. D levels and “depression” (sadness?). Much of that accounted for by skin pigment, being more of a problem in black women who make less vitamin D because of increased melanin blocking UV light.
    The depression is thus also associated with being a black college women. It is instructive that researchers see the associations they want to see.

  2. Dr. Hodges, it is encouraging to see this connection. As I work with teachers I often share the general connections between exercise/movement, emotions/mood, and cognition (specifically related to the classroom). I share with teachers that gross motor repetitive movement can stimulate the production of dopamine which is a mood-enhancing neurotransmitter. Also, aerobic exercise can trigger a fast adrenaline – noradrenaline response. This type of response is good for facing and coping with challenges. Maybe more important for the classroom, just the idea of getting children out of their seats and moving increases oxygen levels & nutrients in the brain which helps students be in a better cognitive space for learning/thinking.
    Thanks for the article. I look forward to learning more about how we are incredibly made by an all-sufficient God.

  3. I’m a psychiatric nurse and work primarily with an older adult population, the psychiatrists I work with regularly obtain vitamins D, b12 and folate on just about every patient that I see… I would say about 95%of the time there is a deficiency in most cases with depressive symptoms, acute psychosis and or cognitive deficits. While there is no hard data to support it supplementation does help. Vitamin D deficiency is an epidemic, I would like to see long term studies.

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