Vitamin D is essential for healthy brain development

Vitamin D Deficiency and Schizophrenia: Is There a Connection?

Vitamin D Deficiency and Schizophrenia: Is There a Connection?

Scientifically reviewed by: Michael A. Smith, MD

We've known for many years that vitamin D is essential for healthy brain development during pregnancy, but we're starting to understand just how critical that role is. A new preclinical study published in the Journal of Neurochemistry has helped uncover a possible explanation between newborn babies with a vitamin D deficiency and an increased risk of schizophrenia. It's due to vitamin D's role in the growth of dopamine-releasing brain cells, which are linked to the development of disorders that have abnormal dopamine signaling, like schizophrenia.

The results support previous findings regarding a correlation between this debilitating mental illness and geographical regions with poor sun exposure. A 2018 Danish-control study with 2602 newborn babies, for example, found that babies born with a vitamin D deficiency had as much as a 44 increased risk of developing schizophrenia later in life.

Does this mean that if moms-to-be have a vitamin D deficiency while pregnant, they could also be passing along a higher likelihood of schizophrenia? More research is needed. However, these latest findings do show that vitamin D is vital to how brain cells (neurons) grow, develop and acquire the ability to produce and release dopamine, further highlighting vitamin D's importance in dopamine signaling and mental health.

Can vitamin D deficiency cause schizophrenia?

More research is needed to determine if a vitamin D deficiency in adults causes them to become schizophrenic. Rather, the study suggests that vitamin D deficiency during pregnancy specifically has a link to schizophrenia risk later in the child's life. The theory is that the mother's low levels of vitamin D during her pregnancy may have an impact on brain development.

However, in healthy adults, vitamin D status is independent of schizophrenia risk. The exact cause of schizophrenia is poorly understood, but we know that schizophrenia is linked to altered dopamine signaling and the abnormal development of brain cells. This recent preclinical study found that vitamin D is vital for proper brain cell development and dopamine signaling, suggesting an explanation to why developmental vitamin D deficiency in the womb may increase risk of schizophrenia later in life.

Additionally, while there seems to be a link between vitamin D deficiency in developing babies and the risk of schizophrenia, it is not established causation. More research and clinical trials are needed to find evidence whether a vitamin D deficiency while pregnant means that your child is more likely to develop schizophrenia.

What is schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is a severe mental disorder associated with abnormal dopamine-mediated signaling, ultimately affecting how a person behaves and thinks. People with schizophrenia lose touch with reality, and when schizophrenia is active, people can often experience disorganized speech, hallucinations and delusions that can be disabling and significantly impact daily activities. The symptoms of schizophrenia generally start impacting mental health in the late teens to late 20s; schizophrenia is rarely diagnosed in childhood, and it's very rare that a person with schizophrenia doesn't exhibit symptoms past their early 30s.

Unfortunately, thanks in part to horror movies, there are many negative misconceptions about schizophrenia. This type of psychotic disorder differs from split-personality or multiple-personality in that a schizophrenia patient has a difficult time interpreting reality, but it does not make them more violent or dangerous than other people with or without a psychotic disorder. The good news is that, with treatment, people can improve most symptoms and reduce the likelihood of recurrence.

General symptoms of schizophrenic patients fall into three categories:

  1. Positive symptoms:

    Also known as psychotic symptoms, positive symptoms include hallucinations like hearing or seeing things that don't exist, delusions, and paranoia. Hearing voices is common in schizophrenia.
  2. Negative symptoms:

    Negative symptoms refer to loss of motivation, difficulty expressing emotions, isolation and withdrawing from social life.
  3. Cognitive symptoms:

    Cognitive symptoms include disorganized speech, confused and disordered thinking, difficulty paying attention or concentrating, and odd behaviors.

Fortunately, many schizophrenia patients now have access to effective treatments, making a significant difference in their quality of life and helping them live "normal" and healthy lives. Treatments include antipsychotic medications and cognitive behavioral therapy or psychotherapy.

Signs of a vitamin D deficiency

A vitamin D deficiency isn't easy to spot because obvious signs only become apparent when a person is extremely deficient. Generally, signs of low vitamin D levels include:

  • Bone pain and muscle weakness
  • Slow-healing wounds
  • Poor mood
  • Weak bones
  • Hair loss

Keep in mind that these symptoms could also be unrelated to vitamin D levels and may be an indication of other serious conditions.

Getting regular lab tests every few months is a proactive way to keep your vitamin D levels in check. Speak with your doctor to get your vitamin D levels in your annual wellness checkup, especially if you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant. Levels normally fluctuate throughout the year, so finding high-quality sources of vitamin D can help maintain optimal levels.

Are low levels of vitamin D the same as a vitamin D deficiency?

No. Low vitamin D is not the same as a vitamin D deficiency. Low levels refer to serum vitamin D levels of less than 40 ng/mL. A vitamin D deficiency refers to serum vitamin D levels below 20 ng/mL. But to support optimal levels, research suggests maintaining serum vitamin D levels up to 50-80 ng/mL. And levels should not exceed 100 ng/mL to avoid toxicity.

5 health benefits of vitamin D

So far, we've seen how vitamin D is critical early in life, helping brain cells grow, develop, branch out, produce and release dopamine. But a healthy vitamin D status matters long after we've left the comforts of our mothers' wombs. Your cells and organs have vitamin D receptors, suggesting this vitamin's crucial role in brain health and the potential prevention of dementia.

Here are five more ways vitamin D helps your body keep you kicking and thriving.

  1. Robust immune response:

    Your immune system safeguards your health from disease, illness, infections, pathogens (disease-causing organisms) and even yourself (aka autoimmune diseases). Research shows that vitamin D can interact with immune cells (promoting the production of microbe-fighting proteins), influence genes that regulate inflammation, and bolster immune system response. In other words, healthy vitamin D levels could be the difference between not succumbing to the cold clutches of a cold—or riding the wave of symptoms until it passes.
  2. Cognition:

    Healthy vitamin D levels are crucial for overall brain health. Vitamin D is involved in brain development, and as we grow up, vitamin D becomes a crucial calcium regulator in the body, including the brain, making sure we have enough calcium—necessary for brain cell signaling—but not too much, which has been linked to depression. A large body of research suggests vitamin D has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, protecting us against cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders.
  3. Mood:

    A healthy vitamin D status encourages a healthy mood and emotional well-being. Research has shown that vitamin D deficiency is strongly associated with mood disorders, including depression and anxiety. So yes, low levels of the sunshine vitamin can make you less "sunny," and can even be a detriment to mental health. If you've ever felt perpetually blue during winter months, your mood could be due to poor sun exposure and, correspondingly, low vitamin D.
  4. Bone:

    Vitamin D is well known for promoting bone mineralization and healthy bone density. And this has to do with vitamin D's role in regulating calcium absorption. Research has shown that low vitamin D levels and vitamin D deficiency are strongly linked to an increased risk of osteoporosis.
  5. Heart health:

    A healthy heart also depends on healthy vitamin D levels. Since vitamin D regulates calcium transport and absorption, it's involved in maintaining heart health by protecting blood vessels and endothelial cells (the delicate inner lining of blood vessels) from accumulating calcium deposits. In doing so, the sunshine vitamin also supports healthy blood pressure. Research has shown that a vitamin D deficiency is strongly associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Summary: Vitamin D and schizophrenia

Let's recap: A recent preclinical study published in the Journal of Neurochemistry revealed a possible explanation between vitamin D deficiency and an increased risk of schizophrenia. Because vitamin D is critical in neurogenesis (the formation of brain cells) and dopamine signaling, a vitamin D deficiency may therefore decrease the capacity of developing neurons to release dopamine; schizophrenia is associated with abnormal dopamine signaling.

Does this mean that if you're vitamin D deficient while pregnant your child will develop this mental illness? Not necessarily. This preclinical study shows a correlation (not a causation) between a lack of vitamin D and neurons not developing correctly, which impairs their dopamine signaling and potentially increases the risk for schizophrenia.

Low vitamin D is also associated with a myriad of health concerns beyond schizophrenia, including heart disease, depression, dementia and much beyond. So whether you're a mommy-to-be or not, ensuring your body has optimal levels is essential for whole-body health.



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The Life Extension Health News team delivers accurate information about vitamins, nutrition and aging. Our stories rely on multiple, authoritative sources and experts. We keep our content accurate and trustworthy, by submitting it to a medical reviewer.