By Emma Suttie
Findings from a new study have shown that vitamin D may lower the risk of suicide and suicide attempts in U.S. veterans with low vitamin D levels. The study found that veterans who received vitamin D had a 64 percent lower risk of suicide than those who did not receive supplementation. The study was published in February 2023 in the journal Plos One.
Suicide is a serious public health issue and the 12th leading cause of death in the United States. In 2020, 45,979 Americans died by suicide and there were an estimated 1.2 million suicide attempts. According to the CDC, suicide rates increased 36 percent between 2000-2018, and Suicide Awareness Voices of Education states that from 2020 to 2021 there was a 3.6 percent increase in suicides, bumping it up to the 11th leading cause of death in the United States. This is one death every eleven minutes.
When it comes to veterans, however, the statistics change. Veterans are at a 57 percent higher risk of suicide than those who haven’t served, which is more than 1.5 times the national average. Suicide is the second leading cause of death of veterans under the age of 45.
Below are some other notable statistics:
- 125,000 veterans have died by suicide since 2001.
- There were 6,146 veteran suicides in 2020.
- There have been 20 consecutive years with 6,000-plus veteran suicides.
Study: Low Levels of Vitamin D Linked to Higher Risk of Suicide
The study aimed to determine the association between vitamin D supplementation, vitamin D blood serum levels, suicide attempts, and intentional self-harm in a group of veterans in the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The retrospective cohort study looked at veterans who had filled either a vitamin D3 or vitamin D2 prescription between 2010 and 2018. A cohort of 169,241 vitamin D2-treated veterans and 490,885 vitamin D3-treated veterans were each matched to an equal number of controls that had similar demographics and medical histories.
The results of the study showed that vitamin D3 and D2 supplementation was associated with a 45 percent and 48 percent reduced risk of suicide attempt and self-harm. This was an almost 44 percent difference between the groups receiving supplementation and the control group.
Additionally, the study found that vitamin D supplementation among black veterans was associated with a 60 percent decline in suicide attempts, and in veterans with vitamin D deficiency, which the study defined as being below 20 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL), there was a more than 64 percent reduction in potential suicide attempts.
The study states that vitamin D deficiency is prevalent in the United States and more than 30 percent of U.S. military personnel have been shown to be deficient in vitamin D, having levels below 20 ng/mL, which the study defined as a deficiency. The average vitamin D supplementation ranges from the study were from 40 IU (international units) to 50,000 IU.
How to Get More Vitamin D
All of us need vitamin D for healthy bones and teeth and to keep our immune systems in good working order. The best way to get vitamin D naturally is from the sun, which is why going outside on a sunny day is an excellent way to get your daily dose. A good rule of thumb (and this varies per person and depends on where you live) is to get between 10–30 minutes of mid-day sun, when the sun is highest in the sky, a few times a week. Fair-skinned people may need a little less, and dark-skinned people may need a little more because the amount of melanin in your skin affects how much vitamin D you absorb.
The study above adds to a growing body of evidence that has shown that a deficiency of vitamin D has a marked effect on mood disorders like depression.
A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials published in July 2022 found that people who took 2,000 IU of vitamin D or more per day had a reduction in symptoms of depression. The review’s authors suggested that further research be conducted focusing on the possible addition of supplementation of vitamin D to conventional treatments for depression.
Although more may be needed for depression, the recommended daily amount of vitamin D for adults from 19–70 years is 15 micrograms (mcg), or 600 IU.
How Diet Affects Depression
Diet is an important part of health and many chronic diseases have been shown to be treatable with lifestyle choices like exercising regularly and making changes to one’s diet. Although there has been a great deal of study looking at the effects of lifestyle changes for diseases like heart disease and diabetes, there has been much less focus on the role diet may play in mental disorders like depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
There is increasing evidence that suggests that diet is a factor in mental health disorders. A study in the British Journal of Psychiatry set out to explore if dietary factors had an effect on schizophrenia and depression. The study concluded that a higher intake of refined sugar and dairy products resulted in a worse 2-year outcome in those with schizophrenia, and depression was marked by a low dietary intake of fish and seafood.
Coffee, tea, and sweetened beverages are the most consumed non-alcoholic beverages worldwide. A study published in 2014 involving 263,923 participants, found a link between sweetened beverages and depression—regardless of whether the beverages were sweetened with natural or artificial sweeteners. Those who drank more than 4 cups/cans of sweetened beverages a day had a 30 percent higher risk of depression than those who did not drink any sweetened beverages.
Interestingly, those who drank the same amount of sweetened fruit drinks (which the study categorized as drinks such as Hi-C, lemonade, and Kool-Aid) had an even higher risk of depression, at 38 percent.
A study out of Australia published in Public Health Nutrition found that adults who consumed over a liter of soft drinks per day had an approximately 60 percent greater risk of depression, suicidal ideation (suicidal thoughts or ideas), and mental problems.
Other Ways to Combat Depression
There are other, natural ways to help combat depression. Magnesium and vitamin B6 and B12 have been shown to help with depression. The best way to get them is through the foods we eat, but if you can’t, a good quality supplement works well too. Below is a brief description of each and some of the best food sources—so you know where to find them. Other ways we can help depression are by prioritizing sleep, getting some sunlight every day, cultivating meaningful relationships, and getting plenty of exercise.
In a randomized clinical trial published in Plos One, researchers found that supplementation with over-the-counter magnesium can be an effective way to treat mild to moderate depression. The trial was carried out on 126 U.S. adults diagnosed with mild to moderate symptoms of depression. The group received six weeks of treatment with 248 mg of elemental magnesium per day compared to a group that had six weeks with no treatment.
The researchers found that 112 participants (out of 126) had clinically significant improvement in their depression and anxiety symptoms. Additionally, the improvements happened quickly—after only two weeks. The study concluded that magnesium supplementation provides a safe, quick, and inexpensive approach to controlling symptoms of depression.
The best way to get more magnesium is through our diet. Below are some of the best magnesium-rich foods:
- Leafy greens like spinach, kale, collard, turnip, and mustard greens.
- Nuts like cashews, almonds, and Brazil nuts.
- Fatty fish like salmon, tuna, halibut, and mackerel.
- Seeds like sunflower, flax, pumpkin, and chia seeds.
- Wheat bran.
- Beans like black beans, lentils, chickpeas, and soybeans.
- Dark chocolate (yay!).
The recommended daily amount of magnesium for men is between 400–420 mg, and for women is between 310–320 mg daily.
Research suggests that vitamins B6 (pyridoxine) and B12 (cobalamin) are also helpful for depression. In a double-blind study published in July 2022, 478 college students were broken up into three groups. The first took a placebo pill, the second took 1,000 micrograms of vitamin B12 and the third took 100 mg of vitamin B6. The students took the supplements for one month.
Using several metrics, the study found that the students taking the vitamin B6 had a reduction in anxiety and tended towards less depression.
Vitamin B6 is vital to keeping the nervous and immune system healthy and functioning properly. It is also needed for proper brain development. Foods that are high in vitamin B6 include chicken, fish, organ meats, potatoes, bananas, pistachios, sunflower seeds, and avocado.
The recommended daily amount of vitamin B6 for adults 19–50 years is 1.3 mg (milligrams).
There is also a suspected link between low vitamin B12 levels and depression. In a randomized controlled trial published in Open Neurology Journal, 199 depressed patients with low vitamin B12 levels who were taking antidepressants were split into two groups. One group received vitamin B12 injections and the control did not. After three months the study found that the group receiving the vitamin B12 had significantly improved depressive symptoms.
Vitamin B12 is needed to make red blood cells and is an important component in the function and development of brain and nerve cells. It is also used to synthesize DNA. Vitamin B12 can be found in meat, chicken, fish, eggs, and dairy products. Some of the best sources are beef liver, sardines, and Atlantic mackerel.
The recommended daily amount of vitamin B12 for adults 19-50 years is 2.4 mcg.
With nearly one in ten people in the United States, and almost one in five adolescents and young adults suffering from depression, it is a serious health issue. Thankfully, there are many ways to get relief—from the addition of vitamin D, B vitamins, and magnesium to our diets—to getting regular exercise and connecting with friends to getting consistent sunshine. Most importantly, talk to someone. You are not alone.
For anyone who may be struggling, there is a crisis lifeline available—just call or text 988 to be connected. The lifeline provides free and confidential support 24/7 for people in distress, as well as prevention and crisis resources for you or someone you love.