A growing number of children and teenagers suffer from anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems. Although there may be a number of underlying causes, it appears that vitamin D deficiency may be a contributing factor, according to a study that is published in the Journal of Nutrition. The problem is only made worse by the fact that many youngsters get too little sunlight during the summer period and that sun awareness campaigns warn against sun exposure without informing people about alternative ways of getting vitamin D. Vitamin D is important for bones but also for the brain, the nervous system, the immune defense, and many other physiological processes.
Children with low blood levels of vitamin D are nearly twice as likely as those with plenty of the vitamin to develop aggression and mental disorders like anxiety and depression, according to a study from University of Michigan. The study was headed by Eduardo Villamor, Professor of Epidemiology.
According to Villamor, lack of vitamin D was originally associated with adult mental health problems such as depression and schizophrenia. However, science has also observed a link between lack of vitamin D in pregnant women and increased risk of autism, sclerosis, and other diseases in the child. Only few studies have looked at vitamin D levels in young people and how this affected their mental health later in life.
Lack of vitamin D in the early school years increases the risk of mental disorders later in life
In 2006, Villamor and his team of scientists, recruited 3,202 children aged 5-12 years for a cohort study in Bogota, Columbia. The children were selected from random public schools. Villamor and his researchers collected data about the children’s weight and height, diet and lifestyle habits, and their families’ social status. They took blood samples to measure levels of vitamin D in the children.
Six years later when the children were 11-18 years of age, the scientists assessed the behavior of the children with questionnaires that were to be filled in by the children and their parents.
As mentioned earlier, children with low levels of vitamin D in the blood were nearly twice as likely as children with higher vitamin D levels to develop aggression and mental disorders like anxiety and depression. Low blood levels of a vitamin D-carrying protein were also linked to a higher rate of self-reported aggressive behavior and symptoms like anxiety and depression.
As Villamor sees it, children who lack vitamin D in the early school years, are more likely to develop various mental disorders and behavioral problems in their teenage years and in the higher classes.
Although the authors acknowledge that the study has limitations, their results do indicate that there is a need for further studies in other population groups where lack of vitamin D is a common problem.
It is concerning that mental disorders among children and youngsters have become so widespread. What is even more problematic is that therapies aimed at treating these problems fail to recognize the fact that young people often lack vitamin D, a nutrient that is vital for the brain and nervous system, and that may be one of the underlying causes of their mental problems.
Vitamin D har many functions in the brain
All cells in the body have vitamin D receptors, even cells in the hippocampus and other parts of the brain and nervous system. In the brain and nervous system, vitamin D has the following functions according to available research:
- Increases the neuron density in hippocampus, which is important for memory and orientation
- Increases levels of neurotrophins in the hippocampus, which protects nerve cells
- Controls genes and neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine, dopamine, and serotonin
- Regulates mechanisms that protect against oxidative stress
- Counteracts brain inflammation that may cause depression
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
Alberto Ascherio, MD, et al. Vitamin D Status During Pregnancy and Risk of Multiple Sclerosis in Offspring of Women in the Finnish Maternity Cohort. JAMA Neurol. March 2016
Science News. Causal link found between vitamin D, serotonin synthesis and autism in new study. Science Daily. 2014
Ibrar Anjum et al. The Role of Vitamin D in Brain Health: A Mini Literature Review. Cureus 2018
Darryl W Eyles et al. The association between neonatal vitamin D-status and risk of schizophrenia. Scientific Reports. 2018
Anne Ringgaard. Mange danske børn får for lidt D-vitamin. Videnskab.dk 2016
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