Article at a glance
- Vitamin D is well known for its role in bone health and calcium homeostasis, but this fat-soluble vitamin is increasingly recognized for its essential role in long term brain health.
- Low levels of Vitamin D have been associated with several brain health conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s Disease, depression, and cognitive decline.
- 50% of the global population are not meeting their Vitamin D needs due to lifestyle and environmental factors. Are you getting what you need?
Written by : Stacy Cappadona, MS, RD, LD, CSCS
Known as the "sunshine vitamin," Vitamin D is synthesized in our skin in the presence of sunlight and is well known for its essential roles in bone growth and integrity and regulation of calcium homeostasis. Yet, this fat-soluble vitamin, which acts more like a hormone, has a lot more to offer than strong bones. Vitamin D is increasingly recognized as essential for long term brain health, neurodevelopment, and cognitive function.
There are two primary variants of Vitamin D, Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol), and Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol). Vitamin D3 is the hormonally active form that plays a significant role in human health. The primary source of Vitamin D3 is sunlight, but can also be obtained from oily fish, fortified dairy products, or supplementation. Whether it comes from sunshine or dietary intake, most Vitamin D variants must travel to the kidneys to be turned on to its biologically active form.
Once active, Vitamin D has been found to cross the blood-brain barrier and attach to Vitamin D receptors, which are widespread in brain tissue. In the brain, Vitamin D has been found to play a protective role in several neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease (AD), Multiple Sclerosis (MS), Parkinson’s Disease (PD), depression, and cognitive decline.
Some of the neuroprotective effects demonstrated by Vitamin D include the clearance of amyloid plaques, a hallmark of AD, mounting anti-inflammatory action, and promoting nerve growth. 70-90% of AD patients are Vitamin D deficient. Therefore, studies suggest that there are "critical windows" in life when the risk for brain disease increases where Vitamin D supplementation could be the most beneficial for protecting brain health.
Moreover, studies have linked Vitamin D deficiency and PD incidence and MS risk. Vitamin D may help decrease risk and attenuate deterioration in these patients by inhibiting free radical formation and stimulating both antioxidant formation and nerve growth factor. Studies have also shown significant improvements in depressive symptoms after Vitamin D supplementation. Lastly, other studies have found that low levels of Vitamin D are associated with substantial cognitive decline in healthy elderly populations.
Vitamin D insufficiency affects 50% of the global population. This massive number can be attributed to many lifestyle and environmental factors such as reduced exposure to sunlight, either from latitude, seasonal changes in sunlight, air pollution, or skin protection mechanisms. Sunscreen with a sun protection factor of 30 reduces Vitamin D synthesis in the skin by more than 95%. You might be protecting yourself from sun damage, but are you taking other steps to obtain the Vitamin D that you need to optimize brain health?
About the author:
Stacy obtained her Masters Degree in Exercise Physiology with a concentration in Sports Nutrition while completing her Masters Thesis and Dietetic course work at Florida State University from 2013-2016. Prior to that, Stacy attended Florida State University from 2006-2010 for her Bachelors in Exercise Science.
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The content herein is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health practitioner with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.