Amid a flurry of conflicting reports concerning the efficacy of vitamin D for COVID-19 patients, a sense of consternation has emerged in the health care sector regarding its overall utility.
Vitamin D plays a critical role in the restorative function of mental health. Low vitamin D levels correlate with mood disorders as well as the development of schizophrenia. In light of the rise in mental health dysfunction and the body of evidence examined to develop this article, we recommend that patients continue to incorporate regular vitamin D supplementation during the course of the pandemic with the goal of preventing deterioration of well-being. Recent studies have generally overlooked the role of vitamin D in mental health by primarily focusing on the immediacy of therapeutic management for medical disorders within the context of COVID-19.
What is the role of vitamin D in human physiology?
Vitamins play an integral role in homeostatic metabolism. Vitamin D, in particular, is intimately responsible for regulating the body’s underlying phosphorus and calcium balance, thereby facilitating bone mineralization.1 As an immunomodulatory hormone, vitamin D coordinates activities across innate and adaptive immune systems, providing defense against autoimmune diseases and miscellaneous infections.2
It is uncommon for people to be affected with vitamin D deficiency in equatorial zones, yet an Indonesian study uncovered low vitamin D effects (hypovitaminosis D) in virtually all of the patients in its COVID-19 case series.3
Likewise, a study conducted in Spain indicated that a whopping 82.2% of the COVID-19 patients endorsed clinically deficient levels of vitamin D, often within the context of severe presentation. Those patients also expressed elevated inflammatory markers, namely, D-dimer and ferritin.4
Comparable studies across the globe continue to support a correlative, if not causative, role for hypovitaminosis D and susceptibility to COVID-19. Mental health awareness entails healthy emotional interactions, preservation of well-being, and the ability to govern one’s thoughts and actions in accordance with societal expectations against the backdrop of ongoing psychosocial stressors. Such awareness helps ensure that people can make resourceful choices and meaningful associations, and can handle stress. We know that mental health is pivotal in dictating one’s overall health. This article provides a detailed exploration of the dynamics of mental health, COVID-19, and vitamin D.
The rationale for vitamin D supplementation therapy in COVID-19
When it comes to respiratory tract infections (RTI) such as COVID-19, influenza, and pneumonia, considerable interest has been generated with respect to the therapeutic efficacy of vitamin D in the acute setting. Vitamin D, as an inflammatory modulator, exerts a protective effect in patients with RTI, especially in those with deviations from baseline vitamin D levels.5
What is the rationale for administering vitamin D supplementation therapy for COVID-19? It has been noted that emergent cases of COVID-19 arise during the autumn months for European countries6 and there is also a firmly established connection between the amount of solar radiation/UV exposure (or the lack thereof) and influenza outbreaks,7 further underscoring the relevance of vitamin D levels. Despite those observations, wholesale implementation of vitamin D therapy should not be used in the acute setting for conditions such as COVID-19 or pneumonia as it is not supported by evidence-based practices. Despite the compound’s inherent antimicrobial actions,8 four randomized clinical trials involving pediatric subjects failed to demonstrate a significantly beneficial response (for example, radiographic resolution) to adjunctive supplementation during the course of acute pneumonia symptomatology.9 Likewise, data collected from a randomized controlled trial confirmed the suspicion that high-dose vitamin D therapy has no tangible effect, tied to mortality or otherwise, on moderate or severe presentations of COVID-19.10
Revisiting vitamin D supplementation therapy for mental health patients with COVID-19
It is clear that recent studies have undermined the overall applicability of vitamin D therapy with respect to acute presentations of COVID-19. However, our team would like to underscore the importance of vitamin D supplementation with respect to maintenance of the integrity of underlying mental health processes.
Numerous studies (for example, cross-sectional, cohort, case-control) have uncovered a statistically significant relationship between vitamin D deficiency and depression, including variants such as postpartum and antepartum depression. It should be noted that the pathophysiology for those variables is not entirely known and that the overall clinical utility of supplementation therapy has not previously been recommended because of existing gaps in the literature.11
In another prospective study involving a relatively small sample size, subjects with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) were either exposed to 10,000 IUs of vitamin D or phototherapy, and depression endpoints were evaluated via the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression, the SIGH-SAD, and the SAD-8 depression scale. Improvements in 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25-OH D) levels correlated with improvements in depression metrics. However, subjects exposed to phototherapy sessions did not exhibit any meaningful improvements in clinical outcome.12
It is also possible that vitamin D deficiency is reflective of an overall poor nutritional status. People with schizophrenia have frequently been observed to have vitamin D deficiency with more than half of all patients also manifesting symptoms of osteoporosis, a condition that often necessitates vitamin D supplementation. The literature shows that the jury is still out regarding the applicability of vitamin D supplementation for schizophrenia patients, with numerous conflicting studies, including one randomized trial indicating an improvement in positive and negative symptoms as well as in the metabolic profile.13
However, in light of the rather large and growing body of evidence suggesting an increased risk of deterioration, psychological distress, and worsened prognosis during the pandemic coupled with the presence of medical and/or mental health morbidities, it would be sensible for psychiatric patients, especially those with preexisting deviations from baseline vitamin D levels, to consider vitamin D supplementation.
Vitamin D supplementation therapy, as a preventive, but not curative measure – one that is also low cost/high benefit – allows for the patient to be in a much better position from the perspective of her/his general health and nutritional status to tackle the ongoing psychosocial challenges of the pandemic and/or COVID-19 exposure.
Dr. Aman is a faculty member in the biology department at City Colleges of Chicago. She is a postdoctoral researcher at the International Maternal and Child Health Foundation (IMCHF) in Montreal; fellow, medical staff development, American Academy of Medical Management; and master online teacher (MOT) at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Dr. Aman disclosed no relevant relationships. Dr. Islam is a medical writer for the IMCHF and is based in New York. He is a postdoctoral fellow, psychopharmacologist, and a board-certified medical specialist. He disclosed no relevant financial relationships. Dr. Dhillon is a staff neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and is affiliated with Sturdy Memorial Hospital in Attleboro, Mass. He is on the speakers bureaus/advisory boards of Biogen, Bristol Myers Squibb, Genzyme, and Teva Neuroscience. Mr. Zaid Ulhaq Choudhry is a research assistant at the IMCHF. He has no disclosures. Dr. Zia Choudhry (Mr. Choudhry’s father) is chief scientific officer and head of the department of mental health and clinical research at the IMCHF. Dr. Choudhry has no disclosures.
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