Vitamin D Deficiency Strongly Exaggerates the Craving for and Effects of Opioids – Supplements May Help Combat Addiction

Vitamin D Supplement Softgels

Vitamin D deficiency strongly exaggerates the craving for and effects of opioids, potentially increasing the risk for dependence and addiction, according to a new study led by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). These findings, published in Science Advances, suggest that addressing the common problem of vitamin D deficiency with inexpensive supplements could play a part in combating the ongoing scourge of opioid addiction.

Earlier work by David E. Fisher, MD, PhD, director of the Mass General Cancer Center’s Melanoma Program and director of MGH’s Cutaneous Biology Research Center (CBRC), laid the foundation for the current study. In 2007, Fisher and his team found something unexpected: Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays (specifically the form called UVB), causes the skin to produce the hormone endorphin, which is chemically related to morphine, heroin and other opioids — in fact, all activate the same receptors in the brain. A subsequent study by Fisher found that UV exposure raises endorphin levels in mice, which then display behavior consistent with opioid addiction.

Endorphin is sometimes called a “feel good” hormone because it induces a sense of mild euphoria. Studies have suggested that some people develop urges to sunbathe and visit tanning salons that mirror the behaviors of opioid addicts. Fisher and his colleagues speculated that people may seek out UVB because they unknowingly crave the endorphin rush. But that suggests a major contradiction. “Why would we evolve to be behaviorally drawn towards the most common carcinogen that exists?” asked Fisher. After all, sun exposure is the primary cause of skin cancer, to say nothing of wrinkles and other skin damage.

Fisher believes that the only explanation for why humans and other animals seek out the sun is that exposure to UV radiation is necessary for production of vitamin D, which our bodies can’t formulate on their own. Vitamin D promotes uptake of calcium, which is essential for building bone. As tribes of humans migrated north during prehistoric times, an evolutionary alteration might have been needed to compel them to step out of caves and into the sunshine on bitterly cold days. Otherwise, small children would have died of prolonged vitamin D deficiency (the cause of rickets) and weak bones might have shattered when people ran from predators, leaving them vulnerable.

This theory led Fisher and colleagues to hypothesize that sun seeking is driven by vitamin D deficiency, with the goal of increasing synthesis of the hormone for survival, and that vitamin D deficiency might also make the body more sensitive to the effects of opioids, potentially contributing to addiction. “Our goal in this study was to understand the relationship between vitamin D signaling in the body and UV-seeking and opioid-seeking behaviors,” says lead author Lajos V. Kemény, MD, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow in Dermatology at MGH.

In the Science Advances paper, Fisher, Kemény and a multidisciplinary team from several institutions addressed the question from dual perspectives. In one arm of the study, they compared normal laboratory mice with mice that were deficient in vitamin D (either through special breeding or by removing vitamin D from their diets). “We found that modulating vitamin D levels changes multiple addictive behaviors to both UV and opioids,” says Kemény. Importantly, when the mice were conditioned with modest doses of morphine, those deficient in vitamin D continued seeking out the drug, behavior that was less common among the normal mice. When morphine was withdrawn, the mice with low vitamin D levels were far more likely to develop withdrawal symptoms.

The study also found that morphine worked more effectively as a pain reliever in mice with vitamin D deficiency — that is, the opioid had an exaggerated response in these mice, which may be concerning if it’s true in humans, too, says Fisher. After all, consider a surgery patient who receives morphine for pain control after the operation. If that patient is deficient in vitamin D, the euphoric effects of morphine could be exaggerated, says Fisher, “and that person is more likely to become addicted.”

The lab data suggesting that vitamin D deficiency increases addictive behavior was supported by several accompanying analyses of human health records. One showed that patients with modestly low vitamin D levels were 50 percent more likely than others with normal levels to use opioids, while patients who had severe vitamin D deficiency were 90 percent more likely. Another analysis found that patients diagnosed with opioid use disorder (OUD) were more likely than others to be deficient in vitamin D.

Back in the lab, one of the study’s other critical findings could have significant implications, says Fisher. “When we corrected vitamin D levels in the deficient mice, their opioid responses reversed and returned to normal,” he says. In humans, vitamin D deficiency is widespread, but is safely and easily treated with low-cost dietary supplements, notes Fisher. While more research is needed, he believes that treating vitamin D deficiency may offer a new way to help reduce the risk for OUD and bolster existing treatments for the disorder. “Our results suggests that we may have an opportunity in the public health arena to influence the opioid epidemic,” says Fisher.

Reference: “Vitamin D deficiency exacerbates UV/endorphin and opioid addiction” 11 June 2021, Science Advances.
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abe4577

Fisher is the Edward Wigglesworth Professor of Dermatology at Harvard Medical School. Kemény is currently working as a resident physician in Dermatology at Semmelweis University in Budapest, Hungary.

This work was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health and the Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Medical Research Foundation.

16 Comments on "Vitamin D Deficiency Strongly Exaggerates the Craving for and Effects of Opioids – Supplements May Help Combat Addiction"

  1. Johm Richards | June 12, 2021 at 3:36 am | Reply

    I don’t want this. I didn’t ask for it. It doesn’t have an unsubscribe. which it should have by law. So please, no more emails.

  2. said elkhamrihi | June 12, 2021 at 6:29 am | Reply

    Bonjour….merci..

  3. Everything created by the govt has a purpose…everything

  4. I believe that drug addiction is connected to mental illness. I believe that people become addicted to drugs because drugs help them feel better mentally. I know for a fact that once I was diagnosed with vitamin D deficiency and was prescribed vitamin D supplements I feel so much better. I even stopped taking Prozac and I still feel good. I’m still taking the vitamin D. However, I’m not telling anyone to stop taking their meds. I am saying that if you’re depressed talk to your doctor about having your vitamin D levels checked. Also, know that sufficient Vitamin D levels are based on sex and age. Though my primary care physician said that my vitamin D levels were good (34), my endocrinologist said that they were low for my age (I’m 54). The endocrinologist said that for my age my vitamin D level should have been at least 50.

  5. I’m sorry vitamin D is not going to stop addiction.. Maybe it could help a little while in treatment, but for addicts that go through violent withdrawals vitamin D is not going to stop that.. I guess if the person is off of opiates, and it’s out of there system it could kinda help prevent use. Anyone that’s gone through true withdrawals “myself included” knows there’s nothing to stop that terrible emotional and physical pain but opioids.. if you came up to somebody having terrible withdraws and handed them a vitamin D pill, I promise you it would get thrown back at you..

  6. I have MS. I take 2000 iu a day of Vit. D. I have for many years. I get sun, enough to slightly tan, although heat enervates me,heat intolerance being very common in MS. My levels are always low. Could it be a matter of not synthesizing Vit D, rather than a lack of it?

  7. This is bs science to imply black people use opioids more because they need more vitamin D than others.

  8. interesting study. low vitamin D level is widespread and a chronic problem . I had mine tested before supplementation and it was 27. I started taking a vitamin D with vitamin K as a facilitator and now my level when tested is in the 40’s. Increased level definitely improves mood and energy level, so the findings do not surprise me.

  9. Or… People who have opiod dependents tend to stay indoors and not get sunlight which causes vitamin D deficiency, Which would also cause a correlation.

  10. For 5 years I’ve been battling with the misdirection of info such as this. We aren’t mice, no matter how much we have in common. Patients with severe daily pain from diseases, injuries and genetic defects have been denied their pain medication because of the misdirected “fixes” (and deliberately named to implicate prescriptions) opioids crisis. So please do not implicate prescription medications for pain in your studies – we’ve proven so many times that it’s not what’s driving the crisis. How can it be, when in the last decade prescriptions have dropped 40% while rates of addiction have risen 1040% during the same time frame! So please leave medications and patients far away from the equation when there are far more addictive substances on the streets to worry over.

    • I would welcome any new info on how to lower withdrawal for people who are addicted. I battled a fifteen year oxycodone addiction after a neck and back injury. Pain pills work great for short term use or for people suffering from cancers or terminal illness. But I would never recommend using any addictive pain pills for an injury or pain for very long. My one or two vicodon pill addiction increased over years to about three to six oxycodone 30s a day. The longer yours on it, the more you need for the same effect. Soon all you’re doing is keeping from being sick. So you take more than prescribed. Then you run out of your prescription and left dope sick so you buy them on the street. Then one day you have been off them for a week so you are desperate but no one has any. But one friend can get heroin. Your sick and tired and an emotional reck. So you give in and buy some and do it. You say hey it’s fine. I am snorting it not shooting so it ok. But it’s not because you can never tell how strong it is. But you still get a prescription so you will go back to pills then
      That works. Until one day you’re drug tested by your pain doctor. He kicks you out of his office with not even one last script. You try other doctors. Get kicked out eventually everywhere. So you buy pills on the street. At 30 a pill it’s expensive. Your bills get behind and you loose your jobs from being dope sick all time and calling off. Now you’re really broke. But still need those pills. They become most important because how can you take care of your kids if you’re sick. You borrow, beg, and steal. You always need money, always need more pills. You try heroin again cause it’s way cheaper. How did things get so bad. Those fucking pain pills. Your friends all start dying from overdose and you’re ready to loose everything. But luckily I gave in to recovery. It took months at a methadone clinic and counseling to get better, but now I’m clean and free from those opioid hand cuffs. I am still trying to undo the pain I have caused my child. I regret ever taking one pill. I should have dealt with my physical pain better because now my child has to be in emotional pain from it. I still have back pain today. Some days I can’t do as much. But it’s better than life before. Next time I have an accident or injury I will take Motrin when needed instead. I hope people can get help from vitamin D for pain pills addiction. And I am glad there are people trying to find ways to help because withdrawal is so terrible.

  11. One more reason to correct Vitamin D Deficiency which is a global pandemic. For just $20 per year in D3 opioid addiction and cravings can be fought.

  12. Ryan Waldron | June 13, 2021 at 3:13 am | Reply

    Wow….it amazes me how political and biased science is these days. This is obviously not true. I am Vit D deficient and I regularly take absolute minimum amounts of opioids prescribed to me after surgery or the like. I have opioid pain relievers from a kidney stone 6 years ago, back when I was not even taking Vit D replacement. If this deficiency gives an uncontrollable urge to take opioids, how is it I can’t stand taking them? Could it be that this is all BS and we should stop wasting time and money on those that choose to be addicts and spend it on helping worthwhile people in the world? I certainly think so. I personally am tired of seeing tax dollars taken from hard working people used to narcan the dregs of society for the 15th time. The fact that none of you do gooders want to admit is these people don’t want to change and until they do, no amount of the rest of our money is going to change that!

  13. Frank Hernandez | June 13, 2021 at 4:43 am | Reply

    I love this info, I always had hope in supplements, it’s great what you are providing out there to those who are hoping for natural alternatives for health, wellbeing and then some. Thankyou,
    Frank, LA, Ca.

  14. What if you take a massive dose of vitamin D and go by every recommendations to make it higher but your levels are still very very low?

  15. Vitamin D levels must always be optimized for your general health and wellbeing. Your body converts it into needed hormones so a daily dose of fully direct unprotected sun exposure is a good thing. They say 15 minutes at high noon is good for 400iu of direct D. This is the minimum as 1000iu is now considered the daily norm. Some suspect even higher amounts may be needed for optimal health as absorbtion may be affected by one’s auto immune condition’s,biome or seasonal/latitudenal exposures. Note, your eyes and circadian rhythms are also affected by sun exposure and work synogesticly with vitamin d to improve ones well being. So forget about the mice unless your that small minded about addictions.

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