Published on June 30, 2021
Study shows how low vitamin D levels can lead to increased risk of Opioid Use and Addiction
In addition to producing vitamin D, sunlight or UVB exposure results in the release of beta-endorphins, which are naturally occurring opioids that promote mood enhancement, relaxation, and pain relief. Recent research has identified an “endogenous opioid-mediated addiction-like pathway,” or a built-in feedback loop between vitamin D levels and sun seeking behavior, triggered by the UV-induced release of beta-endorphins. The suggested benefit is to provide a “reward” for UV-induced vitamin D synthesis when vitamin D levels are low, during which time a greater amount of beta-endorphins are released upon exposure to UVB. As vitamin D levels rise, the sun-seeking behavior and resulting opioid response become repressed as less vitamin D is needed.
Opioid Addiction in the United States
Opioid drugs, which include heroin and prescriptions such as hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin), and morphine, are all chemically similar with similar physiological effects as the natural opioids produced by the body. While the intended use of these prescription drugs is as a pain reliever, this class of drugs also produces a high, leading to increased risk of addiction and misuse. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2019, 10.1 million people in the United States, 12 years of age or older, misused opioids in the previous year, with 9.7 million of those involving prescription pain killers. These numbers have risen over the most recent couple of years during the COVID-19 pandemic making it increasingly important to identify avoidable risk factors for opioid dependence and abuse.
Dose-Dependent Relationship Found Between Opioid Use and Vitamin D Levels
Compared to what happens when the skin is exposed to UVB and both beta-endorphins (the endogenous opioids made in the body) and vitamin D are produced simultaneously, intake of opioid drugs bypasses vitamin D production and the proposed feedback-control loop that is managed by vitamin D levels – which is hypothesized to contribute to continued opioid seeking behavior and resulting addiction. Previous associations have been seen between vitamin D and pain levels, as well as vitamin D deficiency and increased opioid intake.
In order to further evaluate vitamin D deficiency as a contributing factor to opioid addiction, a study by Kemeny et al. used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES, 2003-2004) to group individuals by vitamin D level and compare vitamin D levels to opioid use. They found an inverse, dose-dependent association between vitamin D levels and self-reported opioid use, independent of pain. The chart below shows the decreased frequency of opioid use among individuals with higher vitamin D levels, showing a 47% lower risk of opioid use among those with a vitamin D level of 20 ng/ml (50 nmol/L) or higher compared to those with levels below 12 ng/ml (30 nmol/L).
Another analysis looked at the risk of Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) and how it was related to the presence or history of vitamin D deficiency. This time, the authors used data from 163,531 primary care patients, among which 2772 OUD cases were identified and matched to 8265 controls. They found that patients with OUD were much more likely to have vitamin D insufficiency or deficiency (levels below 20 ng/ml or 50 nmol/L), where 28% of OUD cases had a most recent vitamin D level below 20 ng/ml, versus only 17% of controls (P<0.001). OUD cases were also less likely to have a vitamin D level of at least 30 ng/ml (75 nmol/L) and were more likely to have had vitamin D deficiency compared to controls.
How Could Vitamin D Deficiency Increase Opioid Use?
To answer several hypotheses as to how and why vitamin D levels may influence opioid addiction, the authors ran several experiments using mouse models. In doing so, they discovered the following:
- vitamin D deficiency increased sensitivity to morphine reward, and the opioid-seeking behavior was reversed with vitamin D supplementation
- vitamin D signaling seemed to regulate the perception of pain and opioid analgesia
- vitamin D deficiency led to faster tolerance to morphine and exacerbated opioid dependence, which was alleviated by correcting vitamin D levels
- vitamin D signaling plays a complex role in reward behaviors
- vitamin D deficiency seems to modulate opioid responses in multiple areas of the brain
- vitamin D deficiency increased UV radiation-induced endogenous pain relief and reward
- vitamin D deficiency did increase the UV/opioid reward, likely to maximize vitamin D synthesis, which normalized with the correction of vitamin D levels
Overall, the results from the above imply that vitamin D deficiency may
- increase risk of developing tolerance to opioid drugs and opioid dependence
- increase risk of more significant withdrawal symptoms
- experience greater reward from opioid exposure
In conclusion, based on their findings, the authors state
“The inverse dose-response relationship between VitD levels and likelihood of opioid use, coupled with our preclinical data, is consistent with a model in which even modest rescue of VitD deficiency could be beneficial in the prevention and treatment of opioid addiction, especially considering that VitD is generally inexpensive, accessible, and safe.”
Measure Your Level of Vitamin D Today!
Having and maintaining healthy vitamin D levels and other nutrient levels can help improve your health now and for your future. Choose which to measure, such as your vitamin D, omega-3s, and essential minerals including magnesium and zinc, by creating your custom home test kit today. Take steps to improve the status of each of these measurements to benefit your overall health. You can also track your own intakes, symptoms and results to see what works best for YOU.
Enroll and test your levels today, learn what steps to take to improve your status of vitamin D (see below) and other nutrients and blood markers, and take action! By enrolling in the GrassrootsHealth projects, you are not only contributing valuable information to everyone, you are also gaining knowledge about how you could improve your own health through measuring and tracking your nutrient status, and educating yourself on how to improve it.
Help everyone Move Research into Practice with vitamin D and other nutrients! As a special birthday gift to everyone, in honor of the science, we have created a special scholarship fund for anyone to donate to that will go towards helping others participate. Your donation will allow anyone to get help with funding their participation when they need it.
Text-to-give: Text Daction to 44321 to add to our Scholarship Fund.
What Does it Take YOU to Get Your D to 40 ng/ml (100 nmol/L)?
Did you know your health could be greatly affected by making sure you have a vitamin D level of at least 40 ng/ml (100 nmol/L)? Help us help you.
STEP 1 - Do you know what your vitamin D level is? If not, be sure to test today to find out.
STEP 2 – Determine your target level. Are you at your target level? Experts recommend a level of at least 40-60 ng/ml (100-150 nmol/L).
STEP 3 – Need to boost your level? Use the D*calculator to see how much vitamin D it may take to reach your target. Opt for the Loading Dose for a quicker boost.
STEP 4 – Optimize how your body absorbs and utilizes vitamin D with co-nutrients and these simple steps.
STEP 5 – Re-Test! This is an important step to make sure you have reached your target level, and to ensure you are not taking too much! Re-testing after 3-4 months is recommended.
STEP 6 – Adjust, Repeat…
Give your immune system the nutrients it needs to support a healthy you and protect yourself from unnecessary diseases, especially COVID-19.
The first Randomized Controlled Trial on vitamin D and COVID-19 has shown a 96% lower risk of ICU admission for those receiving vitamin D (as 25(OH)D to quickly boost vitamin D blood levels) along with the standard treatment, compared to those receiving standard treatment alone.
These results support many previous observational studies showing a relationship between vitamin D levels and intake and COVID-19 severity.
GrassrootsHealth Nutrient Research Institute has launched the new Immune Boost project with the use of our myData-myAnswers nutrient health system that nearly 15,000 people are already using for their health. Specific markers that influence immune health are suggested for testing as part of this project including:
- Vitamin D
- Omega-3 Index
- Essential elements magnesium, selenium, and zinc
Our goal is to demonstrate how one can use the Nutrient Research Model established by Dr. Robert Heaney to show the effect of vitamin D serum levels of at least 40 ng/ml (100 nmol/L) on risk reduction for all ethnicities in the population. Status and intake of other nutrients will also be analyzed for any type of relationship to immune status and symptom severity. Join the project today!
Please let us know if you're interested in helping sponsor this project.
Through GrassrootsHealth Nutrient Research Institute, you can also test your essential elements magnesium, copper, zinc and selenium, toxins such as lead, mercury and cadmium, as well as your omega-3 levels, inflammation levels and thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) level. Find out your levels today! Log on to the test selection page (click the link below) to get your tests and see for yourself if your levels can be improved.
Make sure you track your results before and after, about every 6 months!
How can I track my nutrient intake and levels over time?
To help you track your supplement use and nutrient levels, GrassrootsHealth has created the Personal Health Nutrient Decision System called
For each specific supplement, you can track what days you take it, how much, and many other details. This will help you know your true supplemental intake and what patterns of use work for you to reach and maintain optimum nutrient levels. Check it out today!