Vitamin D brain effects

Dr Paul Clayton’s Health Newsletter Spring 2015

Research by the legendary Bruce Ames has thrown up new links between maternal vitamin D, or the lack of it, and autism (Patrick & Ames ’15). Their work indicates that adequate levels of vitamin D may be required to produce neurotransmitters dopamine, oxytocin, vasopressin and especially serotonin in the brain, where they shape the structure and wiring of the central nervous system and affect social behaviour.

This could explain why autism, which has been previously linked to low levels of serotonin in the brain and to low vitamin D levels (Grant & Soles ’09, Yang et al ’14), has increased so markedly in the last three decades, in the wake of well-meaning but misguided government recommendations to minimise exposure to sunlight.

It could also help to explain the staggering increase in depressive illness, as depression is also linked to low D status (Penckofer et al ’10); and why sunbathing makes us feel good, although the beta-endorphins formed when sunlight hits the skin also contribute. It may also explain why we are constructed in such a way that we find sunbathing pleasurable; the feel-good factor encourages us to expose our skin to sunlight, protecting us from the many diseases linked to low D status.

I describe the government guidelines as misguided because in my view they suffer from gross sampling error. While today’s malnourished citizens may well be at increased risk of skin cancer after sun exposure, folks who are better nourished in terms of UV-protective phytonutrients are able to cope with sunlight much more easily (Stahl & Sies ’12). This is why in the 19th century, agricultural labourers who worked long hours outdoors were relatively immune to skin cancer.

I should point out that although low maternal vitamin D status is linked to increased risk of autism, other scientists have found that is not associated with ADHD (Strom et al ’14). [Although this paper’s subjects were mothers in Denmark, where population D levels are very low and vitamin D supplements are disliked.]


Grant WB, Soles CM. Epidemiologic evidence supporting the role of maternal vitamin D deficiency as a risk factor for the development of infantile autism. Dermatoendocrinol. 2009 Jul;1(4):223-8.

Patrick RP, Ames BN. 
Vitamin D hormone regulates serotonin syn-thesis. Part 1: relevance for autism FASEB J. 2014 Jun;28(6):2398-413.
Penckofer S, et al. Vitamin D and depression: where is all the sunshine? Issues Ment Health Nurs. 2010 Jun;31(6):385-93.

Stahl W, Sies H. Photoprotection by dietary carotenoids… Mol Nutr Food Res. 2012 Feb;56(2):287-95.

Strøm M, et al. Vitamin D measured in maternal serum and offspring neurodevelopmental outcomes: a prospective study with long-term follow-up. Ann Nutr Metab. 2014;64(3-4):254-61.

Yang CJ, Tan HP, Du YJ. The developmental disruptions of serotonin signaling may be involved in autism during early brain development. Neuroscience. 2014 May 16;267:1-10.

Anti-depression nutrients

Omega 3, Folic acid, B vitamins, Selenium, Zinc and Tryptophan are all anti-depressive nutrients

They are also important brain foods. Sugar and fast food are strongly linked to depression.

One out of every 7 individuals will suffer a depressive episode during his or her lifetime. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that by the year 2020 Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) will be the second cause of morbidity worldwide.

Around 150 million people suffer from depression worldwide and this number has increased in recent years. Women are twice as likely to become depressed as men. The highest prevalence of MDD was recorded in France – 21% and the USA – 19%.

Fortunately, there is clear evidence of what constitutes an anti-depressive diet. The US Government’s National Institutes of Health report is quite clear:

“Among all the potential risk factors and triggers linked to MDD, nutrition is possibly the most basic factor and may be the easiest to modify.

“Not only are certain nutrients needed for proper brain functioning, but also others can be harmful, promoting depression. The Mediterranean Diet has been linked to a low prevalence of depression while fast-food consumption has been found to increase the risk of developing and aggravating this disorder, hence the need for nutritional interventions.”

It’s hardly surprising that diet may be the most important intervention, as the production of neurotransmitters needed for proper brain function needs the right nutrients in the right amounts.

The nutrients you need to counter depression
Omega 3
The brain is one of the organs with the highest level of lipids (fats). Grey matter contains approximately 50% polyunsaturated fatty acids of which about 33% belong to the omega-3 family. Being essential fatty acids, they cannot be synthesised in the body, so they must be supplied through diet.

Case-control studies have shown that patients suffering with depression have significantly lower levels of omega-3 and clinical trials have shown the effectiveness of omega-3 as additional treatment for major depression.

In one small study, students who took 2.5 milligrams a day of mixed omega-3 fatty acids for 12 weeks had less anxiety before an exam than students taking placebo.

Omega 3 is especially important in maintaining the integrity of the myelin sheath which encases the neurons in the brain and in protecting the membranes of brain cells themselves against both inflammation and free radical damage.

Amino acids, minerals, vitamins and olive oil
Other nutrients that are anti-depressive are the amino acids tryptophan, tyrosine and glutamine, which help produce serotonin; the minerals zinc, copper, iron and magnesium); B vitamins B6, B12 and folic acid (B9); and olive oil.

Restoring serotonin levels may decrease the symptoms of depression caused by serotonin deficiencies. This can be achieved through a diet that is high in tryptophan. High tryptophan foods include nuts, seeds, tofu, cheese, chicken, turkey, fish, oats, beans, lentils and eggs. All these nutrients – with Omega 3 – are abundant in the Mediterranean Diet, which is rich in fruits, vegetables, fish and cereals, but low in meat and dairy products.

Sugar and fast food are strongly linked to depression

A diet that is high in refined carbohydrates and sugars is a common factor in depressive illness. The link between fast food and depression has recently been confirmed. Researchers now believe that the global rise in MDD sufferers could well be attributable “to radical changes in the sources of fats consumed in Western diets, where we have substituted certain types of beneficial fats – polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats in nuts, vegetable oils and fish – for the saturated and trans-fats found in meats, butter and other products, such as mass-produced pastries and fast food.”

A large study conducted in six countries established a highly significant correlation between sugar consumption and the prevalence of depression. This is almost certainly because a sugar-rich fast-food diet is strongly pro-inflammatory. And long-term inflammation in tissues, including brain tissues, is now known to be a cause of mental deterioration.

A high intake of sugar may also interfere with the production of neurotransmitters.

Vitamin and mineral deficiencies can cause depression
Folate (folic acid) and vitamin B12 deficiencies have also been linked to depression.

Patients with depression typically have blood folate levels approximately 25% lower than healthy controls. One study author noted that patients treated with 0.8 mg of folic acid per day or 0.4 mg of vitamin B12 per day showed decreased depression symptoms. Another controlled study has shown that folic acid enhanced the effectiveness of antidepressant medication.

Mineral deficiencies have also been linked to MDD development. Low selenium intake is associated with lowered mood status and zinc levels are lower in individuals with clinically significant depression. Moreover, research shows that the intake of oral zinc can enhance the effectiveness of antidepressant therapy.

Zinc also protects the brain cells against the potential damage caused by free radicals, as do other antioxidants such as vitamins C and E.

The range and levels of nutrients in NutriShield have been set to support optimum brain function.