Can Vitamin D Support A Healthy Brain? Here's What We Know
Vitamin D is a vitamin and a hormone in its active form (yeah, it's that impressive) that plays a part in keeping many—like so many—parts of the body running smoothly.* And though you're probably most familiar with vitamin D for its role in bone health1 and immunity2 (which, yes, it is important for),* they're really just the tip of the iceberg.
In fact, research throughout the last few decades has identified that vitamin D impacts everything from fertility and mood to gut function and blood sugar regulation.* And that's not all, either: We now know that the sunshine vitamin not only influences brain development3 but also everyday brain function4, too; it even works to protect our noggin as we age4.* As if vitamin D wasn't impressive enough already!
Here's a quick overview of what we know about how vitamin D could be a building block to a healthier brain* (as if you needed yet another reason to make sure you're getting enough of it).
The links between vitamin D and brain health.
Numerous studies suggest that vitamin D is important for our brain at every stage of life, starting amidst crucial brain development5 in the womb.* Researchers have also suggested that vitamin D impacts proper brain function, thus promoting balanced mood and cognitive function6.*
The importance of the sunshine micronutrient certainly doesn't decline as we age. "Vitamin D plays a role in helping the body ward off oxidation,"* explains Nicole Avena, Ph.D., an assistant professor of neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and visiting professor of health psychology at Princeton University. As a result, she explains that vitamin D deficiency can mean suboptimal cognitive health.
In fact, one meta-analysis 7conducted in 2019 that reviewed 11 studies on a total of 21,784 participants, concluded that there is, in fact, a connection between vitamin D status and age-related cognitive function.*
Why this link between the sunshine vitamin and cognition? It seems that adequate vitamin D levels are associated with a reduction in amyloid beta and phosphorylated tau,* two hallmark proteins that inform brain aging, according to Avena. However, more research needs to be done to further solidify the link and the mechanisms at play.
That said, the potentially pivotal role vitamin D plays in the brain now and as we age might also clue us into its importance for daily brain functioning, says Avena.* "It is likely that a vitamin D deficiency can affect other facets of memory, too," she says.* For this reason, Avena believes the nutrient somehow interacts with our ability to remember and think clearly.
Plus, vitamin D receptors often appear in the area of the brain responsible for the formation of new memories, "which may be compelling evidence that vitamin D is related to the proper creation of new memories,"* Avena adds.
Clearly, there's more investigation to be done here, but it seems plausible that we can add brain health to the already long list of reasons to make sure we're getting ample vitamin D.*
How to get enough vitamin D.
Vitamin D is found in three places: the sun (well, not in the sun; in our skin thanks to the sun), food, and supplements. When UVB rays from sunlight hit the skin, they prompt the body to form vitamin D all on its own, while certain foods—such as fatty fish, milk, and eggs—either contain vitamin D naturally or are fortified with it.
The issue here, though, folks, is that it can be hard (like really, really hard) to get ample vitamin D from sun exposure and diet alone, Avena says. Case in point: You need a minimum of 3,000 IU daily to avoid vitamin D deficiency and a serving of salmon8 provides about one-sixth of that.
"I suggest that people take a supplement, especially if you live in a northern climate and don't get outside in the sun too often," she continues, adding that she recommends supplements that provide vitamin D3 instead of D2, since D3 is better at improving vitamin D levels in the body.
The bottom line.
Vitamin D is essential to many processes in the body, and research is now finding that it could play an important role in maintaining brain health, too.* While you can certainly spend more time in the sun (safely) and eat more vitamin D-containing foods, adding a daily supplement to your routine that provides more than 3,000 IU of vitamin D3 (because you want to optimize your status, not just avoid deficiency) is the safest bet. If you're not sure where to start, check out our list of quality vitamin D supplements.
If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking medications, consult with your doctor before starting a supplement routine. It is always optimal to consult with a health care provider when considering what supplements are right for you.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.