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How Vitamin D Regulates The Role Of Dopamine In Brain Cells 

Gretchen Lidicker, M.S.
mbg Health Contributor
By Gretchen Lidicker, M.S.
mbg Health Contributor
Gretchen Lidicker earned her master’s degree in physiology with a focus on alternative medicine from Georgetown University. She is the author of “CBD Oil Everyday Secrets” and “Magnesium Everyday Secrets.”
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Image by K-Angle / iStock

You may be familiar with vitamin D's role in immune health and mood support, but it also plays a key role in brain health. In fact, new research shows that it plays a critical role in your brain development. 

Vitamin D and your brain cells

Existing research shows that maternal vitamin D deficiency can be linked to brain development disorders like schizophrenia. For this study, scientists at the University of Queensland Brain Institute took it a step further, examining the functional changes that take place in the brain when a pregnant person is deficient in vitamin D. 

To do this, the team developed cells that mimic key brain cells and replicated some of the processes that take place during brain development. Then, they allowed this development to take place in an environment with active vitamin D hormone and in an environment without it.

The results showed clearly that the cells exposed to vitamin D developed much differently. With adequate vitamin D, changes occurred in the distribution of presynaptic proteins responsible for dopamine release within the cells, which led to enhanced dopamine release. As the authors of the study said in a news release: "What we found was the altered differentiation process in the presence of vitamin D not only makes the cells grow differently but recruits machinery to release dopamine differently." 

The researchers went on to examine this phenomenon using a tool called false fluorescent neurotransmitters, which helped them visualize the functional changes that were occurring in those presynaptic proteins. Again, the results showed enhanced dopamine release in the presence of vitamin D. As the authors explained again: "This is conclusive evidence that vitamin D affects the structural differentiation of dopaminergic neurons."

Dopamine and the brain

Known as the "pleasure molecule," dopamine is one of the main neurotransmitters in the brain and plays a role in areas of the brain associated with memory, movement, motivation, attention, and mood. Dopamine alterations are associated with a range of brain disorders.

It's not clear exactly what causes schizophrenia, but we know that it's associated with changes in the way the brain uses dopamine, and dopamine also plays a role in Parkinson's disease, ADHD, and restless legs syndrome. It's also possible to have low dopamine levels without a diagnosed brain disorder. As neuroscientist and psychiatrist Daniel Amen, M.D., explained previously to mbg, symptoms of low dopamine might look like: 

  • Tiredness
  • Sadness
  • Lack of motivation
  • Brain fog
  • Low energy
  • Difficulty thinking

The good news is that there are ways to support healthy dopamine and vitamin D levels right here right now. Here are three to get you started: 

Get a little bit of sun every day.

Did you know that sunshine on the skin is one of the main ways we get vitamin D? It's true! Many experts recommend doing this first thing in the morning, when the sun can also be used to wake you up and regulate your circadian rhythm

Take a vitamin D supplement.

Even if you're getting a healthy daily dose of sunshine, you may still be deficient in vitamin D. Location, skin tone, and season all impact how much vitamin D you can make from the sun, and most people can't safely get enough sun exposure to reach truly optimal levels. (To put it in perspective, 40% of Americans are vitamin D insufficient1.)

Foods like shiitake mushrooms, sockeye salmon, and fortified milk can help get you on your way. But unless you're downing 50 glasses of milk per day, you're probably going to need some extra help to meet that optimal threshold. While experts recommend consuming 5,000 IUs of vitamin D daily for optimal levels, research shows that 93% of people fail to consume even 400 IUs2.

Taking a vitamin D supplement is a great way to safeguard your vitamin D levels. Don't know where to start? We've done the legwork for you. Here are 7 of our favorites, hand-picked by a nutrition scientist.


According to Amen, dopamine is involved intricately in coordination and movement, and exercising these abilities can create a positive feedback loop, leading to healthier dopamine balance. Amen recommends high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to boost dopamine. Here are HIIT workouts you can do that require zero equipment

The takeaway

A new study reveals how vitamin D deficiency affects brain development and function. This study helps us understand the link between nutrition and brain development in a new way and offers conclusive evidence that vitamin D is critical in brain development and dopamine function.

Gretchen Lidicker, M.S. author page.
Gretchen Lidicker, M.S.
mbg Health Contributor

Gretchen Lidicker is an mbg health contributor, content strategist, and the author of CBD Oil Everyday Secrets: A Lifestyle Guide to Hemp-Derived Health and Wellness and Magnesium Everyday Secrets: A Lifestyle Guide to Epsom Salts, Magnesium Oil, and Nature's Relaxation Mineral. She holds a B.S. in biology and earned her master’s degree in physiology with a concentration in complementary and alternative medicine from Georgetown University.