Man with drug withdrawal symptoms sitting on stairs

Your Brain on Drugs: Worse Without Enough Vitamin D

Your Brain on Drugs: Worse Without Enough Vitamin D

Scientifically reviewed by: Michael A. Smith, MD

Meet an unlikely ally in the war against drugs: vitamin D. A new study suggests that not having enough of the sunshine vitamin may heighten cravings for opioid drugs.

Natural exposure to the sun's rays or UV rays can make the skin produce an endorphin which is also experienced during exposure to chemical substances like morphine and heroin. A laboratory test by lead researcher David E. Fisher found that when mice were exposed to UV rays, their endorphin levels mirrored those with an opioid addiction.

Low levels of vitamin D could make the body prone to opioid addiction

Whether coming from a healthy source like the sun, or an illicit drug, endorphins produce a mild euphoria that results from an increase in dopamine, which is known as the "feel good" neurotransmitter because of its link to the pleasure and reward center in our brains. Those who spend a lot of time outdoors may get a similar "high" from the sunshine that those addicted to opioids experience.

It has been suggested that humans and other species seek sunlight exposure for the production of vitamin D, a crucial nutrient that our bodies don't create on their own. Having healthy levels of vitamin D is essential for bone health, immune health and other health benefits.

Fisher theorized that our desire for UV exposure from the sun is driven by our internal vitamin D deficiency and that our goal is to increase these levels in order to thrive. Fisher also suggested that lower-than-normal levels of vitamin D or deficiency could make the body more prone to addiction, especially opioids.

First author Lajos V. Kemény, MD, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow in dermatology at Massachusetts General Hospital, studied normal laboratory mice and compared them to mice that had lower than normal levels of vitamin D. The researcher concluded, "We found that modulating vitamin D levels changes multiple addictive behaviors to both UV and opioids." This study found that when mice were given small doses of morphine, those with deficient vitamin D levels continued to have withdrawal symptoms, causing them to seek out the drugs.

The lab data from the mouse study suggesting that vitamin D deficiency increases addictive behavior was supported by several accompanying analyses of human health records. One showed that patients with modestly low vitamin D levels were 50 percent more likely than others with normal levels to use opioids, while patients who had severe vitamin D deficiency were 90 percent more likely. Another analysis found that patients diagnosed with opioid use disorder (OUD) were more likely than others to be deficient in vitamin D.

Fisher and his team concluded, "When we corrected vitamin D levels in the deficient mice, their opioid responses reversed and returned to normal." Further research and experimentation need to be done, but Fisher and his team believe they have made headway in the opioid epidemic and hope to end this public health crisis.



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