Study: Vitamin D Might Counter Opioid Addiction

vitamin D

It’s true—researchers have discovered an important link between the two

By Jason Langendorf

Researchers studying the link between vitamin D deficiency and certain addiction-related behaviors believe they have found a potential tool in the fight against the opioid epidemic.

In a study published in the journal Science Advances, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) found that “vitamin D deficiency strongly exaggerates the craving for and effects of opioids, potentially increasing the risk for dependence and addiction.” The study indicates that even inexpensive vitamin D supplements could play a role in managing the treatment of opioid use disorder (OUD).

MGH researchers found that lab mice deficient in vitamin D crave and become dependent on opioids. The results were consistent with human health records that indicate that people deficient in the vitamin also are more likely to use and misuse opioids.”

“Our results suggest that we may have an opportunity in the public health arena to influence the opioid epidemic,” says David E. Fisher, M.D., Ph.D., director of the MGH Cancer Center’s melanoma program and director of MGH’s Cutaneous Biology Research Center (CBRC).

The study was built on findings from Fisher’s previous work, in which he discovered that exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays causes the skin to produce the hormone endorphin (a chemical relative of opioids) and that exposing lab mice to this process elicits behavior consistent with opioid addiction.

The Vitamin D Study

In the latest study, MGH researchers found that lab mice deficient in vitamin D crave and become dependent on opioids. The results were consistent with human health records that indicate that people deficient in the vitamin also are more likely to use and misuse opioids.

In fact, certain data from those records show that patients with even modestly low vitamin D levels were 50% more likely than those with normal levels to use opioids, while patients with severe vitamin D deficiency were 90% more likely.

Additionally, the study revealed that the effects of morphine as a pain reliever were greater in mice with vitamin D deficiency, raising concerns that the administration of powerful opioid-based pain relievers in humans who have the deficiency could leave them more vulnerable to addiction.

Fisher believes the MHG team’s research is encouraging for understanding and treating opioid addiction: “When we corrected vitamin D levels in the deficient mice, their opioid responses reversed and returned to normal,” he says. Although more research on the subject is needed, Fisher hopes that treating vitamin D deficiency will offer future possibilities in reducing the risk of opioid addiction and supplementing existing treatment for OUD.

Photo: The Humble Co.

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