Vitamin D and Child Mental Health

You may have heard about the health benefits of Vitamin D, also known as the “sunshine vitamin.” When children face mental health concerns, such as Depression or Anxiety, checking and addressing vitamin D deficiency may be one step in a holistic approach to addressing the child’s health and reducing the risk for mental health problems. Children may need Vitamin D even more than adults do, especially if they are taking medications. Let’s talk about why children and adolescents need more Vitamin D and how it can be used to help with mental health:

Extreme Vitamin D Deficiency and Rickets

Vitamin D plays a vital role in children’s physical health. Vitamin D became a concern for childhood health, when it was discovered that deficits could lead to Rickets, which causes weakening and softening in bones due to low phosphorous and calcium levels.

Younger children with Vitamin D deficiency may have bone deformation. Older children and teens may experience more risk of bone fracture and injury if they are Vitamin D deficient.

How Does Vitamin D Deficiency Affect Mental Health in Children?

The term “sunshine vitamin” describes more than just the source of Vitamin D. It can also describe the effect that Vitamin D has on mood. Vitamin D deficiency is associated with Depression. This is why Seasonal Depression is more prevalent during the winter months when people have less sun-exposure. Research suggests that treating people with Vitamin D supplements can reduce Depression.

While we do not have research evidence yet that is convincing for using vitamin D to treat mental health conditions.  The research evidence does suggest that there is a link between mental health and vitamin D levels.  Since vitamin D levels tend to be lower in places like New York City, this may be particularly important to consider.

McCue and colleagues performed research examining the mental health of New Yorkers in relation to Vitamin D deficiency. Their findings indicated that majority of patients admitted to Psychiatric care during the winter (between the ages of 18 and 34), were deficient in Vitamin D. This rate was significantly higher than what was found in older patients.

Research performed by Gracious and colleagues also examined adolescents presenting for acute mental health treatment over a 16-month time frame. In this study 38% of the participants had insufficient levels of Vitamin D and 34% had Vitamin D deficiency. Research from Focker and colleagues also suggested a role of Vitamin D in mental disorders of childhood and adolescents.

Overall, Vitamin D deficiency is more common in children with more severe psychiatric disorders. Researchers have found that children with Autism, disruptive disorders, and Bipolar Disorder are more likely to have severe Vitamin D deficiencies. Children with Psychotic symptoms are found to have the lowest Vitamin D levels. Addressing Vitamin D deficiencies may be one way of reducing the risk for psychiatric disorders in children.

It should be noted that, at this time, the research on Vitamin D deficiency is correlational and causation has not yet been determined. Therefore, it is not clear if Vitamin D levels are a cause or a result of the mental health problems. Establishing causation will require additional research. Nevertheless, Vitamin D is an important nutrient, especially for growing children and adolescents.

Addressing low vitamin D levels and risk of mental illness in children

  • Supplements are a safe way to ensure adequate Vitamin D.

  • Sun Exposure: Children need time outdoors with natural exposure to the sun.  Children’s skin is thinner than adults and is vulnerable to sunburn and sun damage, so appropriate caution needs to be taken to protect children’s skin during sun exposure.

  • Diet: Children benefit from foods with Vitamin D, such as eggs and fish. Foods fortified with Vitamin D, such as milk, dairy products can also be helpful. In genera, the amount of vitamin D in food is low, so supplements and sun exposure may be a better way to ensure adequate levels. 

Key Points for Parents and Caregivers

Maintaining recommended Vitamin D levels is a good protective practice for children and adolescents. Vitamin D blood levels can be tested by a pediatrician, psychiatrist or a nurse practitioner to determine if there is a deficiency.  Clinicians can also provide guidance in how to supplement vitamin D at appropriate doses for children.