Got the College Blues? Student Depression Linked to Low Vitamin D Levels

By Jonathan Benson
Jonathan Benson
Jonathan Benson
January 5, 2015 Updated: August 1, 2015

Living away from home for the first time and having to manage a whole new workload without childhood friends or family nearby is tough for many college freshmen. But a new study published in the journal Nutrients also links vitamin D deficiency to this oftentimes overwhelming mental and emotional burden, noting that many depressed college students are lacking in vitamin D and either need to supplement or go out in the sun more often.

Researchers from New Zealand enrolled 615 college students for their study, which compared the relationship between vitamin D status and symptoms of depression. The average age of the students was 19.5 years, and the average vitamin D status was 25.64 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml), about half the amount that the Vitamin D Council has determined to be sufficient.

“With a vitamin D level in this range [20-30 ng/ml] you’re less likely to have health problems than when vitamin D is at lower levels,” says the Council. “However, your body may still be producing too much parathyroid hormone and not fully absorbing calcium, which can affect your bones.”

After gathering data on the participants’ vitamin D levels, the researchers administered questionnaires to identify the prevalence of depressive symptoms. They then adjusted for time spent outdoors, as well as age, gender, ethnic origin, body mass index and other factors that might affect the comparative analysis.

Based on this criteria, it was determined that students with vitamin D levels below 18 ng/ml — both the Vitamin D Council and the Endocrine Society consider vitamin D levels between 10 and 20 ng/ml to be deficient — were twice as likely to report depressive symptoms compared to young adults with a vitamin D level above 32 ng/ml, which is still in the mildly deficient range.

Vitamin D, it turns out, is needed by the body to regulate tyrosine hydroxylase, an enzyme used in the production of epinephrine, dopamine and norepinephrine. These hormones are necessary for regulating mood, stress and energy levels.

“In this population-based study of over 600 young adults, lower vitamin D status was associated with higher depression scores even after taking potential confounders including time spent outdoors into consideration,” wrote the authors.

Vitamin D Level of 50 Ng/ml Considered Optimal

The hope is for randomized, controlled trials to be conducted in the future that look at the benefits of vitamin D supplementation in otherwise healthy young adults. A lack of sunlight exposure or insufficient consumption of foods that naturally contain vitamin D has left many young people at a deficit, making them more prone to physical illness and depression.

Both the Vitamin D Council and the Endocrine Society suggest maintaining optimal vitamin D levels between 60 and 80 ng/ml just to be safe, or ideally at least 50 ng/ml. The 60-80 ng/ml range is considered to be in the “high-normal” range, though separate research suggests that regular sun exposure is enough to maintain these levels without supplementation. However, during the wintertime or when inclement weather inhibits sunlight exposure, supplementation may be necessary.

“To get the most benefit from vitamin D, you must have other cofactors in your body,” adds the Council.

The most important vitamin D cofactors include magnesium, vitamin K, zinc, boron and vitamin A. More on this is available here:

*Image of “woman” via Shutterstock