Friday, March 12, 2010

ADHD and Vitamin D Deficiency: Any Evidence?

Is there any link between vitamin D levels and ADHD? A review of the current evidence:

We have spent a lot of time looking at correlations between vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fatty acids and amino acids (and their deficiencies) and ADHD. However, it is important to note that just because low levels of a particular nutrient are seen alongside the disorder, it does not necessarily mean that this deficiency is the cause of ADHD (i.e. correlation does not imply causation). In other words, the nutrient deficiency and ADHD symptoms might both be secondary effects of a larger primary cause, such as an enzyme deficiency or metabolic dysfunction.

In the case of vitamin D, the association with ADHD is a lot more muddled than with some of the other nutrients which have a relatively strong connection with the disorder (iron, zinc, magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids to name a few). The amount of information in the literature is relatively scarce, as well. A search in the journal database Pubmed (where this blogger gets most of his articles and information) for "ADHD" and "vitamin D" turns up only a small handful of search results, the majority of which focus on other disorders and only mention ADHD peripherally.

However, given the fact that vitamin D is such a "hot" vitamin and has been a popular supplement as of late, we should investigate some of its potential benefits with regard to ADHD and related disorders. Please keep in mind that many of these points below are more theoretical or speculative, because most of the hard, concrete evidence in well-documented clinical controlled studies simply does not exist at the moment. Nevertheless, here are some possible ways in which vitamin D may help in cases of ADHD or related disorders:

  • Vitamin D can boost levels of the antioxidant glutathione in the brain. One way that vitamin D does this is by regulating an enzyme called gamma-glutamyl transpeptidase, which plays a role in both the metabolism and recycling of glutathione. We have spoken at length about how antioxidant deficits can worsen ADHD symtpoms, and how fatty acids (namely omega-3's) are frequently administered for ADHD and related disorders. Given the high makeup of these omega-3 fatty acids in the brain, and their susceptibility to oxidation and damage in the central nervous system, protecting them by boosting antioxidant levels (either directly or indirectly) is a good bet.

  • One of the current theories surrounding ADHD is that it is (at least partially) an energy deficiency syndrome, or is the result of impaired metabolic abilities in key regions of the central nervous system. While highly debatable, this theory holds that impaired glucose metabolism in various parts of the brain may be a major contributing factor to the presence or severity of this disorder.

    While this blogger is currently neutral on this deficiency theory, it is interesting to note that vitamin D can help regulate glucose tranport into the brain, which would (at least in theory) improve this possible cause of the disorder. It is believed that vitamin D works by targeting multiple enzymes involved in glucose transport and metabolism. Much more study needs to be done to confirm this assertion, but this may be another potential benefit of boosting vitamin D levels in the ADHD patient.

  • Vitamin D may play a role in catecholamine synthesis. Catecholamines include the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, both of which are believed to be tightly regulated and highly involved in the treatment of ADHD (deficiencies of both dopamine and norepinephrine in the "gaps" between neuronal cells are often seen in cases of ADHD).

  • Vitamin D boosts the effects of an enzyme called choline acetyltransferase in the mammalian brain. This enzyme is used in the manufacture of another neurotransmitting agent called acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is thought to play a major role in maintaining a state of sustained attention, a critical shortcoming in those with ADHD. In other words, keeping adequate levels of vitamin D could potentially help prop up lower levels of this attention-sustaining neurochemical.

  • Learning and memory deficits, both of which are heavily present in the ADHD population, have been tied to prenatal vitamin D deficiencies in the rat model. This involves a process called synaptic plasticity, which relates to memory formation in an individual. If this finding extends to humans, it could have serious implications on maintaining adequate vitamin D intake in pregnant women.

  • Problems with fine motor control are sometimes seen as a secondary characteristic in a fraction of the ADHD population. These problems may be exacerbated in a vitamin D deficient state.

  • Perhaps the strongest correlation, however, may be between vitamin D and depressive-like symptoms, particularly those associated with seasonal affective disorders (SAD). Please keep in mind, however, that studies on vitamin D levels and depression are highly variable; a number of studies have been done on the topic and found no such linkage between the two. We have previously investigated possible connections between ADHD and SAD in an earlier post.

    This may make intuitive sense, since vitamin D production is triggered by sunlight, so in the dark winter months, the levels of this vitamin are often much lower (this may also be a major contributing factor as to why illnesses run so much more rampant during the winter months). In other words, vitamin D supplementation may be particularly useful in individuals with ADHD who also have co-occuring depressive or anxiety-ridden symptoms.
To summarize: Vitamin D does not have as many pronounced direct effects on ADHD as do some of the other vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and amino acids we have previously discussed. Nevertheless, the vitamin does seem to have multiple neurodevelopmental and neuroregulatory properties, and may go well with comorbid disorders such as schizophrenia, speech difficulties, memory problems, and (perhaps most strongly) depressive symptoms. Please keep in mind, however, that it may not be possible to simply "supplement these problems away" with extra vitamin D. This blogger just wants to point out that a deficiency in this vitamin often manifests itself in many ways, some of which closely parallel ADHD or related disorders. Nevertheless, supplementing may not be a bad idea, especially if you live in an area that gets minimal sunlight for part of (or all of) the year. Some rough guidelines for vitamin D intake can be found here.

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