Can Low Vitamin D Cause Depression in Teenagers?
Low vitamin D may trigger depressive symptoms in teenagers. Vitamin D plays an essential role in brain health and neurotransmitter balance, and vitamin D insufficiency has been linked to mood disorders and anxiety.
Vitamin D is produced when sunlight hits the skin. Unfortunately, more than 40 percent of children and teens don’t get enough sunlight exposure, increasing their risk of low moods and depression.
Learn why vitamin D promotes brain health and how supplementation may lower your teen’s risk of developing depressive symptoms.
Teenagers, vitamin D, and depression
Vitamin D is an essential nutrient that plays a vital role in bone health and immune function and may lower the risk of high blood pressure and certain cancers, including prostate, breast, and skin cancer.
According to the Vitamin D Council, “Increasingly more evidence suggests that vitamin D status is also closely linked to mental health and that vitamin D insufficiency can trigger depression.”
Vitamin D is produced in the skin in response to ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation in sunlight. However, most teenagers spend a lot of their time indoors behind computer screens, which is directly linked to low vitamin D levels, leaving teens at increased risk of developing depression.
Vitamin D has potent neurotrophic properties that promote normal nervous system function and regulate neurotransmitter balance.
The production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates moods, requires adequate vitamin D levels. Research suggests that imbalanced serotonin is one of the main risk factors for depression, anxiety disorders, and low moods.
The role of vitamin D in supporting brain health isn’t limited to neurotransmitters. This study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences summarizes that vitamin D has potent anti-inflammatory properties that have been shown to reduce inflammation and neuronal damage in the brain.
While inflammation is a natural response to injury or infection, common dietary and lifestyle behaviors of teenagers—poor diet, high sugar and carb consumption, alcohol or drug use, and lack of physical activity—can lead to chronic neuroinflammation of brain tissue.
Vitamin D is fat-soluble and protects the brain, which is mainly fatty tissue, from neuroinflammation and the harmful effects of inflammatory cytokines that disrupt normal brain function and are directly linked to the development of depression.
Watch the video below to learn why low vitamin D can cause depression in teens.
Signs of vitamin D deficiency
Vitamin D deficiency can be challenging to diagnose. However, if your teenager experiences muscle weakness, fatigue, bone pain, hair loss, insomnia, depression, and anxiety, it’s best to perform a simple blood test to assess vitamin D status.
A lack of sunlight exposure isn’t the only risk factor for inadequate vitamin D levels. “Individuals with darker skin tones produce less vitamin D in response to sunlight exposure than people with lighter skin, making dark-skinned teens more susceptible to low vitamin D levels,” says Dr. Berg.
You may be surprised that your teen can still be vitamin D deficient despite regular sun exposure. Vitamin D production is triggered by UVB radiation, and only areas close to the equator benefit from year-round UVB rays, increasing the risk of severe vitamin D deficiency in populations living north of the equator.
How to increase vitamin D levels
While regular sunlight exposure is the most natural way to support healthy vitamin D levels, experts found this isn’t always possible. Factors including your child’s skin pigmentation, geographical location, and sunscreen use can make it challenging to ensure healthy vitamin D status from sunlight alone.
In addition, while there are some vitamin D-rich foods, including fatty fish, egg yolks, and fortified orange juice, these food sources contain only small amounts, and trying to get vitamin D from foods alone won’t maintain adequate blood levels.
Vitamin D supplements and cod liver oil are convenient sources of vitamin D that are effective in correcting vitamin D deficiency.
The National Institute of Health (NIH) recommends that teens take 400 IU of vitamin D daily. However, significantly larger doses of up to 10,000 IU of vitamin D may be needed for individuals with dark skin tone, severe deficiency, or limited sun exposure.
While toxic effects of vitamin D are extremely rare, regular blood tests help determine how much supplementation your teen should be taking to benefit from vitamin D without the risk of toxicity.
It’s important to remember that vitamin D deficiency is just one potential cause of depression. If your teen shows any signs of depressive symptoms, consult with a healthcare provider to determine all possible underlying causes and formulate an appropriate treatment plan.
Other possible nutritional causes of depression
Vitamin D isn’t the only nutrient that supports brain function. A recent study published in the Journal of Advanced Nutrition suggests several nutrient deficiencies can significantly increase the risk of depression in teenagers.
Here are three nutritional factors that have been found to increase the risk of depression in teenagers.
Low omega-3 fatty acid intake
Regular consumption of marine omega-3 fats has been found to lower the risk of developing depression in teenagers and adults.
Seafood, including salmon, tuna, sardines, shellfish, and herring, are rich sources of EPA and DHA, two potent anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. Both EPA and DHA can enter the brain and protect from neuroinflammation, which is directly linked to the development of depressive symptoms.
In addition, 25 percent of brain tissue is composed of DHA, and adequate dietary intake is crucial to support normal brain development and function. This may explain why teens with the lowest intake of oily fish are at significantly greater risk of depression than teens who consume omega-3 fatty acids frequently.
Vitamin B12 deficiency
Vitamin B12 is an essential vitamin found in meat, dairy, fish, and egg. This B vitamin is a crucial co-factor for the production of neurotransmitters, and a lack of adequate vitamin B12 can result in low serotonin concentrations in the brain, which is linked to a lack of interest, irritability, and mood disorders.
Fast foods and heavily processed foods often lack vitamin B12. Unfortunately, these foods are often a preferred choice of teenagers, leaving them at increased risk of low vitamin B12 levels and depression.
High intake of sugars are refined carbs
A diet high in sugar and refined carbs can worsen depressive symptoms in children and teens.
Excessive and regular intake of sugar and carbs can cause the cells in the brain to become resistant to insulin, the key metabolic hormone that regulates blood sugar balance. Insulin resistance is a major risk factor for depression and has been found to disrupt neuronal signaling, imbalances neurotransmitter levels, and can cause neuroinflammation.
Interestingly, eating sugar depletes vitamin B1, a crucial B vitamin for brain function that protects the brain from the impacts of stress and supports the growth and renewal of neurons. Lack of vitamin B1 can lead to depression and anxiety.
Many teenagers consume sugary foods, sodas, processed snack foods, and refined carbohydrates, which can adversely affect their brain health and contribute to depression.
Low vitamin D levels may be to blame if your teen shows signs of depressive symptoms and doesn’t benefit from regular sunlight exposure.
There are several possible causes of depression in teenagers, and it’s important to consult with your healthcare provider if your teen shows any signs of depressive symptoms. Vitamin D deficiency is easily diagnosed and corrected and should be a first step in supporting the mental health of your teenager.
Encouraging adequate sunlight exposure and taking a daily vitamin D supplement supports healthy vitamin D levels and may help lower the risk of depression in teenagers.
1. Can vitamin D deficiency affect mental health?
Vitamin D deficiency has been shown to increase the risk of depression in teenagers and adults. Research suggests that vitamin D supports healthy neurotransmitter levels and protects the brain from neuroinflammation linked to depressive mood disorders.
2. Can low vitamin D cause depression in a teenager?
Vitamin D deficiency has been found to significantly increase the risk of depression in older children and teenagers.
3. What are the signs of low vitamin D in adolescents?
Symptoms including muscle pain, insomnia, difficulty focusing, lack of interest, hair loss, bone pain, and fatigue can be signs of vitamin D deficiency.
4. How can I increase my child’s vitamin D level?
Encouraging adequate sunlight exposure and vitamin D supplementation are great ways to increase your child's vitamin D levels.
5. Can depression be caused by low vitamin D?
Low vitamin D has been linked to imbalanced levels of the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin and may increase inflammatory cytokines in the brain. Neuroinflammation is believed to interfere with normal brain function and is directly linked to depression and other mental health disorders.