Low vitamin D levels and depression linked in young women, study shows

March 18, 2015
Young people at Oregon State University enjoy the winter sunshine. People create their own vitamin D when their skin is exposed to sunlight. Credit: Oregon State University

A new study from Oregon State University suggests there is a relationship between low levels of vitamin D and depression in otherwise healthy young women.

OSU researchers found that young women with lower levels of vitamin D were more likely to have clinically significant depressive symptoms over the course of a five-week study, lead author David Kerr said. The results were consistent even when researchers took into account other possible explanations, such as time of year, exercise and time spent outside.

"Depression has multiple, powerful causes and if vitamin D is part of the picture, it is just a small part," said Kerr, an associate professor in the School of Psychological Science at OSU. "But given how many people are affected by , any little inroad we can find could have an important impact on public health."

The findings were published recently in the journal Psychiatry Research. Co-authors are Sarina Saturn of the School of Psychological Science; Balz Frei and Adrian Gombart of OSU's Linus Pauling Institute; David Zava of ZRT Laboratory and Walter Piper, a former OSU student now at New York University.

Vitamin D is an essential nutrient for bone health and muscle function. Deficiency has been associated with impaired immune function, some forms of cancer and cardiovascular disease, said Gombart, an associate professor of biochemistry and biophysics, principal investigator with the Linus Pauling Institute and international expert on vitamin D and the immune response.

People create their own vitamin D when their skin is exposed to sunlight. When sun is scarce in the winter, people can take a supplement, but vitamin D also is found in some foods, including milk that is fortified with it, Gombart said. The recommended daily allowance of vitamin D is 600 IU per day. There is no established level of vitamin D sufficiency for mental health.

The new study was prompted in part because there is a widely held belief that vitamin D and depression are connected, but there is not actually much scientific research out there to support the belief, Kerr said.

"I think people hear that vitamin D and depression can change with the seasons, so it is natural for them to assume the two are connected," he said.

According to Kerr and his colleagues, a lot of past research has actually found no association between the two, but much of that research has been based on much older adults or special medical populations.

Kerr's study focused on young women in the Pacific Northwest because they are at risk of both depression and vitamin D insufficiency. Past research found that 25 percent of American women experience clinical depression at some point in their lives, compared to 16 percent of men, for example.

OSU researchers recruited 185 college students, all women ages 18-25, to participate in the study at different times during the school year. Vitamin D levels were measured from blood samples and participants completed a depression symptom survey each week for five weeks.

Many women in the study had vitamin D levels considered insufficient for good health, and the rates were much higher among women of color, with 61 percent of women of color recording insufficient levels, compared to 35 percent of other women. In addition, more than a third of the participants reported clinically significant each week over the course of the study.

"It may surprise people that so many apparently healthy are experiencing these health risks," Kerr said.

As expected, the women's vitamin D levels depended on the time of year, with levels dropping during the fall, at their lowest in winter, and rising in the spring. Depression did not show as a clear pattern, prompting Kerr to conclude that links between vitamin D deficiency and seasonal depression should be studied in larger groups of at-risk individuals.

Researchers say the study does not conclusively show that low vitamin D levels cause depression. A clinical trial examining whether vitamin D supplements might help prevent or relieve depression is the logical next step to understanding the link between the two, Kerr said.

OSU researchers already have begun a follow-up study on vitamin D deficiency in of color. In the meantime, researchers encourage those at risk of D deficiency to speak with their doctor about taking a supplement.

"Vitamin D supplements are inexpensive and readily available." Kerr said. "They certainly shouldn't be considered as alternatives to the treatments known to be effective for depression, but they are good for overall health."

Explore further: Vitamin D and depression links debunked

More information: Psychiatry Research, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0165178115001080

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Talk to babies and let them babble back to bridge word gap

February 18, 2017

Even infants can have conversations with mom or dad. Their turn just tends to involve a smile or some gibberish instead of words. That's a key lesson from programs that are coaching parents to talk more with their babies—and ...

What the ability to 'get the gist' says about your brain

February 17, 2017

Many who have a chronic traumatic brain injury (TBI) report struggling to solve problems, understand complex information and maintain friendships, despite scoring normally on cognitive tests. New research from the Center ...

Emotions are cognitive, not innate, researchers conclude

February 15, 2017

Emotions are not innately programmed into our brains, but, in fact, are cognitive states resulting from the gathering of information, New York University Professor Joseph LeDoux and Richard Brown, a professor at the City ...

People are found to be inefficient when searching for things

February 15, 2017

(Medical Xpress)—A trio of researchers at the University of Aberdeen in the U.K. has found that when people scan areas looking for something in particular, they tend to do so in a very inefficient manner. In their paper ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

secretosdelara
not rated yet Mar 18, 2015
I didn't have a good life and tried so many things. Different things work for different people and I was lucky enough to find one that worked for me. I used to be stressed and depressed due my bad life and financial problems... but today I can say that the law of attraction combinated with a little trick I discovered it's been a life changer... I have a good job now, no money problems at all, no anxiety, no stress, no continuous depression... if anyone actually cares to hear what I've been doing then I'd be happy to help in any way. Just shoot me an email at secretosdelara@gmail.com and tell you about how things are going for me with the stuff I've tried. I wish someone would have helped me out when I was struggling to find a solution so if I can help you then it would make my day :)

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.