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Vitamin D’s role in children’s mental health

vitdmentalhealthchildVitamin D is involved in the development of the brain structure and in brain functions. According to a review article that is published in Nutrients, vitamin D is of particularly great importance to the mental health of children and teenagers due to its long-term effect. This subject is highly topical as it is known that the widespread lack of vitamin D among children increases their risk of anxiety, depression, aggressive behavior, and other mental problems. It is vital for children and teenagers to get plenty of sun and supplements if necessary so they are sure to meet the new guidelines for vitamin D.

Vitamin D is looked upon as a neuroactive steroid hormone with a key role in the nervous system, our mood, and our cognitive skills. Most studies of vitamin D and its role in mental health have been carried out on adults. However, it is especially important for children and teenagers to get enough vitamin D because of its long-term effect. The scientists behind the new study wanted to analyze the relation between children’s mental health and their vitamin D status by making a systematic review of already published science literature in this area. Their material included intervention studies and observational studies until October 2019 that were collected from PubMed, Web of Sciences and other databases.

  • More and more children and teenagers are affected by anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems
  • Many factors are involved. Vitamin D deficiency appears to be one of them

The link between lack of vitamin D in children and mental diseases

The scientists included 24 suited studies that looked at children and their intake of vitamin D or their blood levels of the nutrient. The studies were divided into groups dealing with the mental health of children, including such categories as healthy children or children with mental problems such as violent behavior, anxiety, depressive symptoms/depression, psychotic disorders, bipolar disorder (manic depression), OCD, and suicidal thoughts. They also looked at the general mental health of the children with focus on stress, quality of life, mood, and sleep pattern.
The majority of studies revealed that vitamin D has a potentially positive role in pediatric mental health. Now, the scientists want more studies that delve into this matter
However, even at this point, they point out that getting adequate vitamin D from safe sun exposure or supplements combined with healthy eating habits should be implemented as an important strategy for supporting the mental health of children. Another thing the scientists refer to is that it takes optimal blood levels of vitamin D to avoid developing mental problems.

Blood levels of vitamin D

  • Blood levels of vitamin D are categorized as actual deficiency (below 30 nmol/L), insufficiency (30-50 nmol/L), and sufficiency (above 50 nmol/L)
  • Many leading scientists believe the optimal level is between 60-100 nmol/L

Vitamin D has many functions in the brain

In their review article, the scientists look at vitamin D’s different mechanisms in the brain and nervous system. For example, we have vitamin D receptors (VDR) in several areas of the brain such as the hypothalamus, the cerebral cortex, the cerebellum, and the limbic system that controls our feelings and short-term memory. Here, vitamin D regulates the on-off switches of several genes and controls neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine, dopamine, and serotonin. Vitamin D even counteracts inflammation that can cause depression.
The scientists describe a host of different studies about vitamin D’s role in mental health and the fact that children with psychiatric disorders often lack vitamin D.

The vicious cycle

They also refer to other connections between vitamin D and mental health. It is a fact that many people with mental health problems such as depression, chronic fatigue, and social anxiety tend to stay indoors, they have poor appetites or eat unhealthy diets and that limits their access to vitamin D from sun exposure or dietary sources. These people may already have an increased need for vitamin D due to genetic factors or a disrupted calcium metabolism. That way, a vitamin D deficiency and its effect on mental health can easily turn into a vicious cycle. Although there are many reasons why people get mental disorders it is important in any case that the brain and nervous system have plenty of vitamin D to work with. If not, targeted therapies may even fail to work properly.

New vitamin D recommendations from the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration

Because new studies have revealed widespread vitamin D deficiency in children and the general population, the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration has issued new guidelines:

Infants and small children under the age of 4 years:
10 micrograms daily all year, from two weeks of age until the age of four

Children from 4 years of age and adults:
5-10 micrograms per day during the winter period (from October to April)

Specific population groups
10 micrograms per day all year round for:

  • Children and adults with dark skin
  • Children and adults who are veiled during the summer period
  • People who do not go outdoors daily or who avoid sun exposure
  • Pregnant women

Individual needs and safe upper limit

Studies show that the need for vitamin D can vary because of genetic differences, which means some people may need more vitamin D than the officially recommended amount. EU’s Scientific Committee on Food has established a safe, daily, upper intake level for vitamin D that is as follows: 25 micrograms for infants aged 0-6 months, 50 micrograms for children aged 6 months to 10 years, and 100 micrograms for children older than 11 years plus adults (including pregnant and breastfeeding women).

  • Around 15 percent of Danish children will have received treatment for a mental disorder before they turn 18
  • Mental disorders represent the single largest disease burden among children and young people from the ages 1 through 24 years.
  • There are many factors that contribute to mental disorders but it is important to be aware of vitamin D and to compensate for deficiencie

Other studies and more information

More and more children and young people are affected by mental health disorders. The following article looks closer at how lack of vitamin D increases the risk of anxiety, depression, aggressive behavior, and other mental disorders

»School children who lack vitamin D have increased risk of anxiety, depression, and aggressive behavior later in life«


Dominika Glabska et al. The Influence of Vitamin D Intake and Status on Mental Health in Children: A Systematic Review. Nutrients 2021

Sonia L. Robinson et al. Vitamin D Deficiency in Middle Childhood is related to Behavior Problems in Adolescence. The Journal of Nutrition, 2019

University of Michigan. Low levels of vitamin D in elementary school could spell trouble in adolescence. ScienceDaily. August. 2019

Helene Sandström. Den optimala D-vitamindosen i vinter? Det beror på dina genar. Nordic Nutrition Council. Sep. 3 2020 Interview mit Dr. Carlberg: Vitamin D, epigenetik und der respons-index. Hämtad. 2020-09-03

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