What Research Shows About Vitamin D Status & Mental Health

A daily dose of sunshine is one of the best things you can do for your mood and mental health!

By: Lexy Parsons

Nicknamed the “sunshine vitamin,” vitamin D has garnered recent attention not only for its role in bone health, but also for its potential impact on mood and mental wellness. However, despite its widespread recognition, this crucial vitamin often fails to receive the attention it truly deserves. What you may not know is that vitamin D is the only vitamin we can actually make on our own, through sunshine and the synthesis of cholesterol. And aside from its role as a nutrient, vitamin D also acts as a hormone (or, a “prohormone,” which simply means the body converts it into a hormone). This dual role as both a nutrient and a hormone explains the close relationship between vitamin D and mental health, with clear evidence showcasing its significant impact on various aspects of mental well-being. 

Linked to reduced risk of depression, anxiety, and cognitive decline, here’s everything you need to know about the sunshine vitamin and mental well-being. Plus, how to ensure adequate levels, including tips on supplementation, sunlight exposure, and the best vitamin D-rich foods.

What to Know About Vitamin D2 vs. Vitamin D3

To understand how vitamin D impacts mental health, it’s important to first understand the differences between vitamin D2  and vitamin D3.

Vitamin D2

Also known as ergocalciferol, vitamin D2 is primarily derived from plants. Considered to be less potent and bioavailable, it must be converted into vitamin D3, the active form, in order to be utilized by the body. While vitamin D2 does address dietary restrictions, the conversion process is less efficient, making it a less suitable choice.

Vitamin D2 sources include:

  • Mushrooms
  • Fortified foods such as cereals
  • Plant-based dietary supplements

Vitamin D3

Vitamin D3, known as cholecalciferol, is predominantly sourced from animal products and can also be synthesized by the skin upon exposure to sunlight. Recognized for its superior potency and bioavailability (compared to vitamin D2), vitamin D3 is the preferred choice for supplementation due to its ability to efficiently raise and maintain vitamin D levels in the bloodstream.

Vitamin D3 sources include:

  • Fatty fish and fish oil (such as salmon and cod liver oil)
  • Egg yolks
  • Liver
  • Butter 
  • Animal-based dietary supplements
  • Our skin, when exposed to sunlight

Vitamin D2 and D3: The Implications on Mental Health

While both forms contribute to overall vitamin D levels in the body, data suggests that vitamin D3, due to its superior bioavailability and potency, may have a more significant impact on mental well-being. According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, vitamin D3 supplementation was associated with greater improvements in depressive symptoms compared to vitamin D2 in individuals with depression. Plus, there’s additional evidence to suggest vitamin D3’s efficient utilization may contribute to its role in regulating neurotransmitters associated with mood, thereby having a greater potential influence on mental health.

The Science-Backed Benefits of Optimizing Vitamin D For Mental Health

Reduced Risk of Depression

Based on extensive data, there’s a compelling association between low vitamin D levels and an increased risk of depression. Data published in Psychological Medicine found that individuals with low vitamin D levels (including both vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency) were more likely to experience depression. However, there’s promising evidence to suggest that supplementation of vitamin D may help reduce these symptoms.

Anxiety Relief

According to data from a randomized controlled clinical study, 1600 mg of vitamin D taken for six months proved effective in improving symptoms of anxiety. Although supplementation is not a one-size-fits-all solution, numerous studies link vitamin D deficiency to increased anxiety risk, reinforcing the importance of maintaining optimal vitamin D status for mental well-being.

RELATED: Can an Antioxidant-Rich Diet Ease Anxiety?

Improved Cognitive Function

Adequate vitamin D levels have not only been linked to improved cognitive function, but emerging evidence suggests that sufficient vitamin D levels may also protect against age-related cognitive decline and neurodegenerative conditions like dementia. Shown to modulate inflammatory processes in the brain and promote the synthesis of neurotrophic factors, vitamin D proves to be a crucial element in maintaining optimal brain health as we age.

RELATED: Food as Medicine: These Are The Best Nutrients For Mental Health

Immune System Support

Vitamin D is well-known for its role in immune regulation, which is great news for our mental health, considering the intricate role of the gut-brain axis. According to research, the vitamin D receptors highly expressed in the gastrointestinal tract help to promote the growth of beneficial bacteria and support a balanced and diverse microbiome. When the gut is balanced, there is improved communication between the gut and the brain, potentially reducing the risk of mood disorders and promoting overall mental well-being.

Reduced Stress & Increased Resilience

Another benefit of vitamin D is its protective role in stress management and resilience. Research suggests that vitamin D receptors present in the brain play a key role in regulating the stress response by influencing the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Not to mention, adequate levels of vitamin D have been associated with lower cortisol levels, the hormone released in response to stress.

RELATED: Is Stress Affecting Your Gut? A Mental Health Expert Explains

Improved Mood

Beyond specific mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, vitamin D has been implicated in the regulation of overall mood! Needed in both the synthesis and regulation of our “feel-good” neurotransmitters such as serotonin, it’s no wonder vitamin D plays a crucial role in mood regulation. A randomized controlled trial published in the Journal of Internal Medicine found that individuals who received vitamin D supplementation experienced improvements in mood compared to a placebo group. While the exact mechanisms are still being explored, the evidence for maintaining adequate vitamin D is promising when it comes to mood and mental health.

Populations at Risk of Vitamin D Deficiency

Based on 2022 data, nearly 50% of the population has a vitamin D insufficiency, while an estimated 1 billion people worldwide (35% being US adults) have a vitamin D deficiency.

Symptoms associated with lack of Vitamin D include:

  • Fatigue
  • Mood changes such as depression, anxiety, and hopelessness 
  • Muscle aches and weakness
  • Bone pain
  • Loss of appetite 

However, this isn’t a conclusive list, and it’s important to remember that these signs and symptoms aren’t always obvious — especially when it comes to mental health. If you’re worried you’re deficient in vitamin D or find yourself experiencing any of these symptoms, check in with your doctor and have your levels checked.

How to Optimize Your Vitamin D Levels

Ensuring you get enough vitamin D is crucial for overall well-being. Here are some ways to maintain optimal vitamin D levels:

Prioritize Daily Sun Exposure

Spending time outside in the sunshine is one of the best ways to naturally produce vitamin D. Ideally, aim for at least 15-30 minutes of sunlight exposure a few times a week (or daily, if possible), prioritizing your arms and face.

Boost Your Intake of Vitamin D-Rich Foods

To naturally boost your vitamin D levels, aim to include various vitamin D-rich foods in your diet, such as:

  • Fatty fish (like salmon, anchovies, or mackerel)
  • Fortified products (like milk, yogurt, and cereal)
  • Eggs
  • Butter
  • Mushrooms

RELATED: 5 Delicious Vitamin D-Rich Foods to Add to Your Diet

Consider Supplementation

If you’re struggling to get adequate amounts of vitamin D through your diet or not spending enough time outside, supplementation may be recommended, especially for individuals with limited sun exposure, dietary restrictions, or specific health conditions affecting vitamin D absorption. As always, it’s important to consult with your doctor or a licensed medical professional to personalize a plan tailored to your specific needs

The Takeaway

As you can see, the science-backed benefits of vitamin D extend far beyond its traditional role in bone health. From influencing neurotransmitter synthesis to regulating mood and reducing the risk of depression and anxiety, vitamin D is a crucial player when it comes to supporting mood and mental health. However, as highlighted above, it’s important to consult with a medical professional before making any changes to your diet or supplement regime. Nevertheless, getting adequate amounts of daily sunshine and loading up your diet with vitamin D-rich foods is a great place to start!