Vitamin D-deficient experimental animals are more likely to become dependent on opioids such as morphine, but their addiction decreases once their blood levels of vitamin D are restored. This was shown in an American study that is published in Science Advances. The scientists assume that low vitamin D levels also increase humans’ risk of growing dependent on opioids following medical pain treatment or other forms of exposure to addictive drugs. Both the legal and illegal opioid abuse in the United States is currently that extensive, experts refer to the problem as an epidemic. One potential way to deal with opioid dependence is to use vitamin D as a supplement, according to the researchers.
Opioids are chemical compounds that bind to the opioid receptors in our central nervous system, among other places, where they have a pain-relieving effect. They affect our psyche by relaxing us and installing a feeling of euphoria and tranquility. Some of the typical side effects of using opioids are nausea, constipation, and impaired function of the respiratory reflex. Even short-term use of opioids can lead to addiction and some people are more sensitive than others. Very high doses may cause death by asphyxiation, simply because the respiratory system stops working.
Morphine, codeine, and heroin, also known as opiates, are made from the opium poppy, where synthetic opioids include names such as methadone, tramadol, and fentanyl. In the late 1990s, the US health authorities started prescribing far more pain-relieving opioids, arguing that they were not habit-forming. Now, a number of drug companies have been sued for misleading marketing.
The current opioid epidemic refers to the massive abuse of opioids, which include prescribed opioids and ones from illegal sources. Because opioid abuse is a huge problem that comes with a massive human and socio-economic price tag, the researchers behind the new study wanted to take a closer look at environmental factors that increase the risk of dependence.
The link between light dependence, mood, and vitamin D
Studies suggest that we can grow dependent on the sun’s UV rays for several natural reasons. First of all, sunlight triggers our body’s production of β-Endorphins (Beta-Endorphins) that bind to the opioid receptors. Secondly, the UV rays contribute to our production of a vitamin D precursor in our skin. The scientists therefore hypothesized that the desire for sunlight may be controlled by the optimization of vitamin D blood levels and the endogenous production of endorphins that are characterized as endogen endorphins. On the other hand, lack of sunlight and vitamin D can also increase the risk of growing dependent on medical opioids. However, because medical opioids do not optimize blood levels of vitamin D, the scientists wanted to investigate vitamin D’s role in connection with the use and abuse of opioids.
Lack of vitamin D is linked to both the consumption of and dependence on opioids
Earlier studies have shown a relation between lack of vitamin D and an increased need for opioids in patients being treated for chronic pain and for cancer patients in palliative therapy. The researchers looked closer at the relation between blood levels of vitamin D and the need for opioids, which was not related to pain relief. They used data from other population studies, including the large NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey), which revealed that lack of vitamin D increases the use of opioids.
As something entirely new, the scientists carried out a study where they compared vitamin D-depleted mice with mice that had adequate levels of the nutrient. Both groups of mice received opioids in the form of morphine. It turned out that lack of vitamin D increased the mice’s dependence. It also made them more sensitive to pain. The scientists refer to the fact that lack of vitamin D disturbs the body’s dopamine production, which is of importance to our mental well-being. Consequently, the researchers assume that lack of vitamin D increases the risk of growing physically and psychologically dependent on different types of opioids.
Sunlight and necessary vitamin D supplements
Based on the results of the new study, the researchers conclude that there should be increased focus on vitamin D as part of the current treatment for opioid dependence. There is room for improvement because many people remain addicted and are never able to get of their abuse. Vitamin D is an inexpensive solution with a good preventative effect.
The scientists say that their study clearly shows why sun exposure without burning is essential. Taking a vitamin D supplement is a very good solution and it is important to optimize blood levels of the nutrient.
The new study is published in Science Advances.
The Danish Veterinary and Food Administration recommends that everyone take a vitamin D supplement during the winter period, while those who fail to get enough sun during the summer period should supplement all year round. Certain groups of people such as dark-skinned individuals, pregnant women, and seniors should also take a supplement all year round because their vitamin D synthesis is reduced. The same goes for overweight people and diabetics. We also need magnesium to activate the form of vitamin D that we get from sun exposure and from supplements.
Vitamin D is also important for blood sugar levels, which are often disrupted in people with opioid dependence. It is of vital importance to eat a nutritious and blood sugar-stabilizing diet in such cases.
Lajos V. Kemény et al. Vitamin D deficiency exacerbates UV/endorphin and opioid addiction. Science Advances, 2021
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. What is the U.S. Opioid Epidemic? 2021
Morten Hesse. Opioider og opiodiafhængighed – hvad er det? Center for rusmiddelforskning, Aarhus Universitet. 2019
Anne Marie Uwitonze, Mohammed S Razzaque. Role of magnesium in Vitamin D Activation and Function. The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association. 2018
Emanuela A. Greco et al. Role of Hypovitaminosis D in the Pathogenesis of Obesity-Induced Insulin Resistance. Nutrients 2019
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