Maintaining Vitamin D levels is essential for mental health

Winter will soon be upon us and now is the time to start taking vitamin D supplements. Starting now means you will be able to maintain summer levels of this critical vitamin.

Professor Robert Heaney

“Wardlaw’s Perspectives in Nutrition” is one of the most widely used university level nutrition textbooks. In the section on vitamin D, the Robert Heaney (Professor of Medicine) makes the comment that in the past 10 years scientists have gained new insight into vitamin D. He states that it has a major role in governing genes involved in diabetes; colon, prostate and breast cancer, cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases.

It appears to activate disease protecting genes and suppress those that cause disease.
In his comment, Dr Heaney concludes that the recommended intake from sunshine and supplements should be increased dramatically as most people get only half their optimum levels and that tolerable upper limit should be raised from 2000IU daily to 10,000IU daily. The Vitamin D council recommend that the optimum daily intake from sun, food and supplements should be 5000IU daily.

Vitamin D and mental health

Serdar Durson (MD, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience) writing in the Canadian Medical Journal (2010) writes: “Vitamin D activates receptors on neurons in regions implicated in the regulation of behaviour, stimulates neurotrophin release and protects the brain by buffering antioxidant and anti-inflammatory defences against vascular injury. There is growing evidence for a relationship between vitamin D receptors in the brain, hypovitaminosis D (low vitamin D levels) and abnormal executive cognitive functions, major depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.”

There is still a lot we do not understand about Vitamin D and mental health but enough to know that low vitamin D is a risk factor for many common mental illnesses. Assessing Vitamin D is the first thing I do for anyone with history of mental illness.

My first experience was about 10 years ago when I started writing my health columns in Wellington papers. I had several people call me about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). I put them on Vitamin D and this had real improvements in mental health and well-being.

Other nutrients and mental health

Once we have dealt with Vitamin D my next goal is to lift levels of a broad range of micronutrients including trace minerals and B vitamins. The Mental Health and Nutrition Research Group in the Psychology Department at the University of Canterbury has been investigating the link between micronutrients and mental health.

It has found strong links between mental health and micronutrients with many people reporting improved well-being when taking a broad spectrum micronutrient formula. One of their studies showed an improvement in the mental health and well-being of children when given a micronutrient supplement.
Obviously all health including mental well-being starts with diet and activities.

However I have found using a supplement like my Cell-X (multi-mineral, multi-vitamin and multi-antioxidant) can really help. Vitamin D, Cell-X and Omega 3 are the cornerstone of my mental well-being supplement programme.

What do I do?

Firstly I get regular sun exposure when available but never burn. I use sunscreen if I know I am going to get a lot of sun especially in summer. I take 4 capsules of my Cell-X multi daily. This gives me 1000IU daily.

I do not take additional vitamin D from December till end of March. From April-May and October- November I take an extra 2000IU daily. From June-September I take an extra 4000IU daily. This with the 4 Cell-X gives me 5000IU in winter. I understand that people with very fair skin and those at higher risk of skin cancer need to have lower sun exposure but need more aggressive supplementation.

Those at higher risk

One of the most at-risk groups in NZ are those of Maori and Polynesian ancestry and anyone with darker skin including our growing Asian, African and sub-Continent communities. While darker skin gives natural sun  protection it also means much lower rate of vitamin D synthesis from the sunlight.

These groups should supplement all year. I am convinced that low vitamin D levels play a part in the poorer health of Maori and Polynesian communities especially with reduced winter immunity and increased risks of asthma and other respiratory problems.

Vitamin D and DNA

A recent study conducted by Boston University researchers revealed vitamin D deficiency actually affects your DNA: “Any improvement in vitamin D status will significantly affect expression of genes that have a wide variety of biologic functions of more than 160 pathways linked to cancer, autoimmune disorders and cardiovascular disease.”

NZ Vitamin D trial

I suspect vitamin D also has a role in allergies, asthma, mood illnesses like seasonal affective disorder, depression and many more. A clinical trial into the benefits of vitamin D supplementation in childhood allergies and asthma is underway at Starship Hospital.

Auckland University Associate Professor Cameron Grant (Paediatrician Starship Hospital) said “In our clinical trial of vitamin D supplementation during pregnancy and infancy, we showed that when these supplements were started in the mum at 27 weeks gestation and then continued in her child until the child was six months old, they prevented sensitisation of the child to house dust mites (measured when the child was 18 months old),” says Dr Grant.

He went on to say that he believed that vitamin D supplements could also help childhood asthma. He further commented “Vitamin D receptors are present on many immune cells and so vitamin D can affect how the immune system works,” he says. “In theory maintaining normal vitamin D status when that sensitivity is developing late in pregnancy and early in infancy, could prevent later allergy sensitivity in the child.”

Vitamin D and Heart Disease

Low vitamin D has been associated with several markers of metabolic syndrome, including obesity, hyperglycemia, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes . Supplementation with vitamin D has been shown to reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome over a 20-year follow-up.This Chinese study over 20 years was reported in Science Daily June 13 2019.

My comment: Vitamin D acts like a master-governor of many body systems including the immune system, brain, cardiovascular system and our endocrine (hormone) system.

Slip, slop, slap gone too far?

We have certainly embraced the “Slip, Slop, Slap” message to protect us from skin cancer. The problem is that unless you take a supplement, you are also causing a vitamin D deficiency. My general advice is to get some sun but never burn and to ensure that your daily multi-vitamin had 500- 1000IU daily. I would then add 2000-4000 IU daily from May to October.

A research paper titled “Vitamin D supplementation and total mortality” (Arch. Intern. Medicine 2007) looked at 18 research papers on Vitamin D and concluded “Intake of ordinary doses of vitamin D supplements seems to be associated with decreases in total mortality rates.” There is compelling evidence that we are becoming increasingly deficient in vitamin D

My advice is to have your vitamin D levels checked and to make sure you are getting enough of this critical nutrient. The best time to test is winter as this is the critical period for vitamin D deficiency.  It costs about $40 to have your vitamin D levels tested and you should aim to maintain mid-winter vitamin D at around 100nmol/l. Give me a call if you need help. For more information give me a call or email

John Arts (B.Soc.Sci, Dip Tch, Adv.Dip.Nut.Med.) is a nutritional medicine practitioner and founder of Abundant Health. If you have questions or need help you can contact John 0800 423559.  You can email John at

Please note that the health advice given through this column is for general educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any health problem. © John Arts 2019

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