By Dr. Mercola
A study of more than 81,000 women found those with the highest intake of vitamin D from food sources had a significantly lower prevalence of depressive symptoms.
The researchers suggested that vitamin D may affect the function of dopamine and norepinephrine.
These are neurotransmitters that are likely involved in depression, while also modulating the relationship between depression and inflammation.
This adds to growing evidence showing that if you're suffering from depression one of the best choices you can make is to spend as much time outdoors in the sun as possible.
Sun exposure is by far the best way to optimize your levels of vitamin D.
This is particularly useful to know as Daylight Savings Time is now over for most and will not having access to enough sunshine to make vitamin D until spring.
Vitamin D Fights Depression
The connection between vitamin D and depression is not new. In 2006, scientists evaluated the effects of vitamin D on the mental health of 80 elderly patients and found those with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 11 times more prone to be depressed than those who received healthy doses.
In the current study, researchers found that intake of more than 400 IU of vitamin D from food sources was associated with a 20 percent lower risk of depressive symptoms compared with intake of less than 100 IU. This was a significant benefit from a very small amount of vitamin D -- as 400 IU is far too low to benefit most people (not to mention your body is made to get vitamin D primarily from the sun, not food or supplements, as I'll explain below).
It now appears as though most adults need about 8,000 IU's of vitamin D a day in order to get their serum levels above 40 ng/ml, which is the lowest they should be. Ideally your serum levels should be between 50-70 ng/ml, and up to 100 ng/ml to treat cancer and heart disease.
It's likely that vitamin D fights depression via several pathways, not only directly in your brain but also via inflammation. Vitamin D receptors have been identified throughout the human body, and that includes in your brain. Researchers have located metabolic pathways for vitamin D in the hippocampus and cerebellum of the brain, areas that are involved in planning, processing of information, and the formation of new memories.
Sufficient vitamin D is also imperative for proper functioning of your immune system to combat inflammation, and other research has discovered that depressed people tend to have higher levels of inflammation in their brains.
Why it's Best to Get Your Vitamin D From the Sun
The researchers mentioned above noted that studies have shown only about 30 percent of Americans' circulating 25(OH)D (vitamin D) is the product of sunlight exposure. This is an unfortunate byproduct of public health agencies' misguided advice to stay out of the sun to avoid cancer (when in fact vitamin D from sun exposure will prevent cancer). The truth is, vitamin D from sun exposure is the BEST way to optimize your vitamin D levels, and a recent interview with Dr. Stephanie Seneff brought the importance of getting your vitamin D from sun exposure to a whole new level.
Total Video Length: 1:29:57
I've consistently recommended getting your vitamin D from regular sun exposure whenever possible, and Dr. Seneff's review of how vitamin D—specifically from sun exposure—is intricately tied to healthy cholesterol and sulfur levels, makes this recommendation all the more important.
As a quick summary, when you expose your skin to sunshine, your skin synthesizes vitamin D3 sulfate. This form of vitamin D is water soluble, unlike oral vitamin D3 supplements, which is unsulfated. The water-soluble form can travel freely in your bloodstream, whereas the unsulfated form needs LDL (the so-called "bad" cholesterol) as a vehicle of transport. Her suspicion is that the oral non-sulfated form of vitamin D may not provide all of the same benefits as the vitamin D created in your skin from sun exposure, because it cannot be converted to vitamin D sulfate.
I believe this is a very compelling reason to really make a concerted effort to get most of your vitamin D requirements from exposure to sunshine, or by using a safe tanning bed (one with electronic ballasts rather than magnetic ballasts, to avoid unnecessary exposure to EMF fields). Safe tanning beds also have less of the dangerous UVA than sunlight, while unsafe ones have more UVA than sunlight. If neither of these are feasible options, then you should take an oral vitamin D3 supplement.
It is very difficult to get enough vitamin D from food sources alone, as very few foods naturally contain vitamin D, and those that do will not contain enough to optimize your levels. Interestingly, the only vitamin not found in breast milk is vitamin D.
Consider this a giant clue that we were NOT designed to strictly swallow vitamin D. We were designed to produce it by exposing our skin to natural sunlight. Lack of sun exposure is really the very root of the problem, as vitamin D deficiency, which is now at epidemic levels, is a fairly recent health concern, historically speaking.
The Depression-Inflammation Connection That Makes Vitamin D Even More Important
Depression is often found alongside gastrointestinal inflammations and autoimmune diseases as well as with cardiovascular diseases, neurodegenerative diseases, type 2-diabetes and also cancer, in which chronic low-grade inflammation is a significant contributing factor. Researchers have suggested "depression may be a neuropsychiatric manifestation of a chronic inflammatory syndrome."
Vitamin D deficiency is associated with increased inflammation in otherwise healthy people, and increased concentrations of serum TNF-alpha, an inflammatory marker, were found in women who had insufficient vitamin D levels.
What this all boils down to is that chronic inflammation in your body disrupts the normal functioning of many bodily systems, and can wreak havoc on your brain and possibly cause depressive symptoms.
This is one more route by which vitamin D is important for your mood and brain health, as vitamin D will help reduce systemic inflammation. Vitamin D deficiency is actually more the norm than the exception, and this can impact far more than your mental health. Optimizing your vitamin D levels could help you to prevent at least 16 different types of cancer, along with heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's, the flu and much, much more.
Why Antidepressants Don't Work
There are many reasons why they don't work the way most people think they work, or want them to work.
Two such reasons, which I wrote about two years ago, are that:
- Chronic stress does not cause the same molecular changes that depression does, but most antidepressants are based on the hypothesis that stress causes depression. The hypothesis appears to be incorrect, which means the drugs are virtually worthless.
- An imbalance in neurotransmitters in your brain may not trigger depressive symptoms as has long been thought. Instead, the biochemical events that lead to depression appear to start in the development and functioning of neurons. This means antidepressants focus on the effect of depression, and completely miss the cause.
These findings were presented at the 2009 Neuroscience conference in Chicago, Illinios. The press release announcing the findings reads:
"More than half the people who take antidepressants for depression never get relief. Why?
Because the cause of depression has been oversimplified and drugs designed to treat it aim at the wrong target, according to new research from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. The medications are like arrows shot at the outer rings of a bull's eye instead of the center.
A study from the laboratory of long-time depression researcher Eva Redei... appears to topple two strongly held beliefs about depression. One is that stressful life events are a major cause of depression. The other is that an imbalance in neurotransmitters in the brain triggers depressive symptoms.
Both findings are significant because these beliefs were the basis for developing drugs currently used to treat depression.
Redei, the David Lawrence Stein Professor of Psychiatry at Northwestern's Feinberg School, found powerful molecular evidence that quashes the long-held dogma that stress is generally a major cause of depression. Her new research reveals that there is almost no overlap between stress-related genes and depression-related genes.
… [A]nother reason current antidepressants are often ineffective is that they aim to boost neurotransmitters based on the popular molecular explanation of depression, which is that it's the result of decreased levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine.
But that's wrong, Redei said. In the second part of the study, Redei found strong indications that depression actually begins further up in the chain of events in the brain. The biochemical events that ultimately result in depression actually start in the development and functioning of neurons.
"The medications have been focusing on the effect, not the cause," she said. "That's why it takes so long for them to work and why they aren't effective for so many people."
Well-Documented Side Effects
The interactions of antidepressants with your brain, liver, digestive system and other systems are still not fully understood, but we do know that the side effects are numerous. Besides the standard laundry list of nausea, dry mouth and loss of libido, more serious side effects of commonly prescribed antidepressants include:
- Suicidal thoughts and feelings and violent behavior : The main and primary one that you should be concerned about is that they could actually INCREASE your risk of suicide. Your risk for suicide may be twice as high if you take SSRIs. Seven out of 12 school shootings were also perpetrated by children who were either on antidepressants or withdrawing from them.
- Diabetes: Your risk for type 2 diabetes is two to three times higher if you take antidepressants, according to one study. All types of antidepressants, including tricyclic and SSRIs, increases type 2 diabetes risk.
- Problems with your immune system: SSRIs cause serotonin to remain in your nerve junctions longer, interfering with immune cell signaling and T cell growth.
- Stillbirths: A Canadian study of almost 5,000 mothers found that women on SSRIs were twice as likely to have a stillbirth, and almost twice as likely to have a premature or low birth weight baby; another study showed a 40 percent increased risk for birth defects, such as cleft palate.
- Brittle bones: One study showed women on antidepressants have a 30 percent higher risk of spinal fracture and a 20 percent high risk for all other fractures. This is because serotonin is also involved in the physiology of bone. If you alter serotonin levels with a drug, it can result in low bone density, boosting fracture risk.
- Stroke: Your risk for stroke may be 45 percent higher if you are on antidepressants, possibly related to how the drugs affect blood clotting
- Heart disease and Sudden cardiac death: Brand new research reported at a New Orleans meeting of the American College of Cardiology found that antidepressants increase your risk of heart disease by causing your artery walls to thicken. The exact biological mechanism is still unknown. A literature review of studies from 2000-2007, published in Expert Opinion on Drug Safety in 2008, found that "Antipsychotics can increase cardiac risk even at low doses, whereas antidepressants do it generally at high doses or in the setting of drug combinations." Another study published in January 2009 in the New England Journal of Medicine also found that antipsychotic drugs doubled the risk of sudden cardiac death. Mortality was found to be dose-dependent, so those taking higher doses were at increased risk of a lethal cardiac event.
- Death: Overall death rates have been found to be 32 percent higher in women on antidepressants.
When you're talking about antipsychotics, which are meant for more severe mental illness such as schizophrenia, the risks can be even more severe, depending on the drug. For example, a recent study published in JAMA discovered that contrary to what we've previously thought, schizophrenia itself does not alter your brain mass.
What was previously believed to be evidence of the disease causing brain shrinkage was actually the effect of the antipsychotic drugs prescribed to schizophrenics…
Keeping that fact in mind, is it wise to prescribe antipsychotics to anyone who does not suffer from schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder?
Well, whether it's sensible or not, the fact is they are being prescribed to a whole lot of people who are neither bi-polar nor schizophrenic, and the side effects are just as bad either way.
And as another example of the dangerous mis-use and off-label prescribing that is so rampant today, a 2009 article in Medscape Today reveals that 60 percent of the US military veterans who received antipsychotic medication in 2007 were not diagnosed with any of the mental illnesses for which these drugs were approved. So that year, more than 162,440 military veterans—the MAJORITY; 60 percent—were prescribed brain-damaging drugs without a diagnosis warranting their use!
And that's just one group of people. You also have hundreds of thousands of civilians being prescribed antipsychotic for off-label uses every year. Again, drugs that cause BRAIN SHRINKAGE are being given to people without proper diagnosis of mental illness!
How is this NOT an outrage?
How could I possibly keep quiet about something as harmful as this?
If you're given a prescription for an antipsychotic, and you're not actually schizophrenic, wouldn't you want to know about this potentially devastating side effect?
Do I Feel the Use of these Drugs is Ever Appropriate?
Please understand that I am not seeking to diminish the impact of mental illness. It is massively pervasive and responsible for tens of thousands of deaths every year and needless suffering in millions of others.
My clinical experience leads me to believe that the only appropriate use of these dangerous medications is as a last ditch effort when the patient is at a serious risk to themselves or others. The drugs should be continued until the condition is under control and they are out of harm's way.
This is a very similar strategy to the way you would employ by going to the ER and orthopedic surgeon for a cast when you are in an accident and fracture a major bone. You don't use that cast the rest of your life. You use it until your bone is healed.
The REAL tragedy is that most of the drug companies do NOT view antidepressants this way. There are enormous marketing efforts to classify normal behavior as aberrant or diseased, which then requires lifelong therapy with their drug solution.
Four More Top Tips for Overcoming Depression
Optimizing your vitamin D is not the the only treatment strategy you can use to overcome depression. Virtually everyone with depression should also be:
- Exercising: Regular physical activity works better than antidepressant drugs to improve your mood. In fact, it's one of the most powerful strategies you can take to prevent and treat depression and boost your mood.
- Avoiding sugar and fructose: Sugar (including fructose) also has a seriously detrimental impact on your brain function. There's a great book on this subject, The Sugar Blues, written by William Dufty more than 30 years ago, that delves into this topic in great detail.
- Increasing high quality animal-based omega-3 fats: Your brain consists of about 60 percent fat, DHA specifically, so you need a constant input of essential animal-based omega-3 fats like krill oil for your brain to work properly.
In fact, one study showed that people with lower blood levels of omega-3s were more likely to have symptoms of depression and a more negative outlook while those with higher blood levels demonstrated the opposite emotional states.
- Addressing emotional stress: If you've followed my articles even a little while, you know that I highly recommend taking an active role in your emotional health. This includes engaging in stress-relief modalities that appeal to you and are effective, like exercise, massage, journaling, guided imagery and more.
Depression is often a serious, even life threatening, condition, and I do not recommend that you self-treat. Instead, find a health care practitioner who can guide you through natural treatment options, providing holistic emotional and physical support so you can heal at the deepest level.
Study Participants Needed: Get Your Vitamin D Tested at Home
You can become a participant in the still ongoing Grassroots Health D*Action study, which is evaluating vitamin D's impact on your overall health status.
When you join D*action, you agree to test your vitamin D levels twice a year during a five-year program, and share your health status to demonstrate the public health impact of this nutrient. There is a $60 fee each 6 months ($120/year) for your sponsorship of the project, which includes a complete new test kit to be used at home, and electronic reports on your ongoing progress.
You will get a follow up email every six months reminding you "it's time for your next test and health survey." To join now, please follow this link to the sign up form.
You may want to consider joining this study not only because you'll be helping to create awareness about the profound importance of vitamin D for optimal health, but also because it's an ideal way to test and monitor your own vitamin D levels, which is highly recommended.
Important Concluding Thoughts—Please Read!
I want to make something abundantly clear before I leave you. I know firsthand that depression is devastating. It takes a toll on the healthiest of families and can destroy lifelong friendships. Few things are harder in life than watching someone you love lose their sense of joy, hope, and purpose in life, and wonder if they will ever find it again. And to not have anything within your power that can change things for them. You wonder if you will ever have your loved one "back" again.
It's impossible to impart the will to live to somebody who no longer possesses it. No amount of logic, reasoning, or reminders about all they have to live for will put a smile back on the face of a loved one masked by the black cloud of depression.
Oftentimes you cannot change your circumstances. You can, however, change your response to them. I encourage you to be balanced in your life. Don't ignore your body's warning signs that something needs to change. Sometimes people are so busy taking care of everybody else that they lose sight of themselves.
There are times when a prescription drug may help restore balance to your body. But it's unclear whether it is the drug providing benefits, or the unbelievable power of your mind that is convinced it is going to work.
If you have been personally affected by depression, my heart goes out to you.
A broken body can be easier to fix than a broken mind. Depression is real. It is my hope that you don't feel judged here, but that you are encouraged and inspired by those who have been there.