How quickly should Vitamin D supplements start brightening the spirits?
September 20, 2011 12:13 PM   Subscribe

People who take Vitamin D to stave off SAD-type gloom: please give me your anecdotes. In particular, how long does it take to start working?

Extended explanation, to satisfy the curiosity of people who like extended explanations:

This year, after a gloriously bright early spring, we had four overcast, rainy months instead of a summer. I've hardly set foot outside in months: throughout July and August especially, I'd open the door and the heavens would open, or the sky would fill with #!@#$! flying ants. Now it's definitely autumn, with cold winds and rain and yet more grey skies. Aargh. *sob*

My mood is strongly affected by daily variations in the weather: bright sunshine cheers me up, and grey gloom casts me down, even if I go out in it. So I've had a fairly awful summer - and as I need to find a new job and arrange an international move, I've got plenty of real problems to be stressed out about at the moment. I can't really afford to have the weather dampening my spirits further. (Sorry.)

While searching AskMe for advice on lightboxes, I was interested to find testimonials in various threads to the efficacy of high-dose Vitamin D supplements: for instance, in this thread and this one. Considering how little exposure I've had to sunlight in the last few months (not only have I been indoors most of the time, but there've been very few days warm enough for short sleeves), I probably am vitamin-D-deficient; and vitamin supplements are a much cheaper thing to try than a €150+ energy lamp.

In this country, the RDA of Vitamin D turns out to be 5 micrograms, or 200 IU. The only pure Vitamin D supplements I can find in the shops are aimed at toddlers, and consist of little sugar tablets containing 5 micrograms of D3. It's not really a blood-test-on-demand kind of health system here, so I can't easily get my baseline levels checked or get prescribed high-dose tablets; it's the kiddy vitamins or nothing.

OK. So, I tried taking three of those a day (600 IU) for a week or so. That didn't seem to be helping, so I upped the dose to five a day, which I've been doing for a couple of days now. No noticeable improvement yet. Should there be, or is it too soon?

In any case, I'm going to try going up to 2000 IU before I give up on this, even though I'll end up rattling. Should I do that tomorrow, or should I give the 1000 IU dose a bit more of a chance? And how long should I stick with the higher dose before giving up and fleeing south for a holiday in the sun?

(Why yes, I *am* a pessimist. But I could be a happier, more human-feeling pessimist than I am right now, if the sun would only shine...)
posted by ManyLeggedCreature to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
YMMV, but even though I'm Vit D deficient (like majorly so), but taking anything more than or above 400mg = uber depressive state for days.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 12:18 PM on September 20, 2011

Curious you mentioned this. I was diagnosed with a severe vitamin D deficiency a few months ago via a blood test. Coincidentally enough I also mood swing if I don't get enough sunlight (which is why I'm living in Reno right now and not Portland which I'd assuredly like better). I did not know that vitamin D was related to mood disorder until just now but I know that I was in a kind of pre (meaning pretty close if not there)-depression stage for several months and after taking supplements both the deficiency and the depression cleared up. I did not associate one with the other until your post just now. All that I have been taking is a multivitamin supplement from Trader Joes with 1100 iu of D3 in it daily.

I know that you should probably take a Vitamin D blood test before you assume that you have a deficiency and I also know that too much D is toxic so be careful on the large dosages. I really recommend the blood test to determine your levels and whether you dosage is effective (or too much!).
posted by Poet_Lariat at 12:23 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was able to buy the 5000 IU capsules from Amazon. Disclaimer: There's no real control to speak of and might just be the placebo effect, but I think it's helping. I used to get sick every couple of months and I have yet to be sick for a year now.

SAD wasn't nearly as bad as it used to be. And that's saying something considering that I was unemployed and not getting out much.

The rationale for the high dose was the following:
1. The price between the 1000 IU and the 5000 IU is negligible. It was 240 caps x 5000 IU for $12.
2. It is difficult to overdose and I wanted to keep my levels high.
posted by just.good.enough at 12:27 PM on September 20, 2011

I was diagnosed as vitamin D deficient last June and was prescribed short-term high-dose supplements. (50,000 IU/week). I've since stepped that down a little, to 5000 IU most days. It's hard to tease out how much of this was the D3 actually working and how much was just a placebo effect, but within about 2 weeks I felt a noticeable difference in my mood -- not so much in levels of depression, but in levels of anxiety and sensory processing issues (basically feeling like everything was too loud and too bright and required all of my attention all the time), and also energy levels.
posted by Jeanne at 12:32 PM on September 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

I live in Vancouver, BC and rely on Vitamin D & exercise to get me through the dark, depressing, sunless winters. Never tried light boxes, as they are very expensive and people still seem to report hit-and-miss results.

I take 3,000 IU daily, but I skip it in the summer. I feel markedly better after I've taken about 1,000 IU consistently for over a week. Tolerable upper intake limit (that is, max to safely take every day) is listed on wikipedia at 4,000 IU for adults.

Wikipedia tells me that Vitamin D is fat-soluble, not water-soluble. I believe this means that it sticks around in your body longer. Even though I suspect it doesn't make a difference, I still feel like crap if I miss a day, I think due to placebo withdrawal.

You might also try adding melatonin before bed, if you can get your hands on it. Lack of sunlight disrupts sleep and that might be contributing to your mood.

Can you get someone in North America or Europe to send you a care package? Vitamin D is super super cheap here ($13 at Costco gets me enough for 2 people for a year) and the negative effects of the sugar highs/lows might be negatively impacting you enough to cancel out the Vitamin D mood-balancing.
posted by 100kb at 12:45 PM on September 20, 2011

I had a scan that showed some bone density loss (probably due to Celiac Disease) and was given a prescription for Vitamin D (50,000 capsule three times a week) to take for 16 weeks. I didn't really notice when it kicked in, I just sort of realized one day that I was feeling better. I think it took at least a month though. The help with depression was just a bonus side effect, not originally what the Rx was for.

I went back to the doctor and asked for another prescription since I liked it so much and felt so good. She said the 3x a week script was just to get my levels back up and put me on 1 capsule a week (still 50,000UI) for maintenance.

We are just starting to get the first touches of Autumn here, so I haven't had any experience with how it will help during the darker seasons. If my elevated mood is any indication though, this winter will be better than the last few.
posted by TooFewShoes at 1:14 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sorry for the typos, I take one 50,000 IU capsule weekly.
posted by TooFewShoes at 1:15 PM on September 20, 2011

Moved to the Midwest USA from sunny Australia and felt winter SAD very badly. I started to take about 1000IU of Vitamin D a day in the middle of last winter and it had a marked effect on how cheerful I felt. I take the dose every morning. I have no proof it helps it could just be a placebo but I noticed a definate change within a week or so though it took about a month to really kick in. I found doing that and making myself go outside if there was even the slightest bit of blue sky, no matter how cold it was or how many layers I had to wear, just the psychological side of being out under blue sky seemed to help me.
posted by wwax at 1:23 PM on September 20, 2011

I took Vitamin D for months and never noticed a difference. Ditto for St. John's Wort.
posted by arcticwoman at 1:40 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

My dermatologist told me that most people are vitamin D deficient anyway, since there aren't many natural sources for it besides the sun and fatty fish, and the current RDA is probably too low. 1000-2000 IU is generally recommended. I take it at his recommendation, 1000 IU in my multivitamin with a 1000 IU supplement on top of that. I welcome any mood-elevating side effects, though to be honest I've never really noticed any vitamins or over-the-counter supplements to have any sort of noticeable effect on me. (Same with fish oil, which I take and have forgotten why. Probably for depression?)

I've found that, with SAD, you often need to use every weapon in your arsenal. Vitamins, exercise, light, getting outside if it's not totally overcast, therapy and prescription medication if needed. Do as much as you can.
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:55 PM on September 20, 2011

Fat soluble vitamins take longer to take effect than water-soluble. They also can overdose. Vit D deficiency is as common as rubber boots here in Southeast Alaska and people often get tested. I think there is even a D shot you can get at the doctor but they can certainly write a script for a heftier dose. Also: salmon.
posted by Foam Pants at 2:28 PM on September 20, 2011

I noticed a fairly subtle but definite improvement in in alertness and ability to concentrate after 3 - 6 weeks of taking 2,000 units/day. Blood tests confirmed that this had brought my vitamin D level up from mildly deficient to solidly normal. What a (rare) treat to find something simple, cheap and low risk that actually works! Give it some more time.
posted by Corvid at 3:03 PM on September 20, 2011

I noticed a difference within about two weeks. I take 1,000 IU in a vitamin D supplement, plus get 400 IU in my multivitamin. I ordered mine from Puritan's Pride, which often has great sales.

Vitamin D is fat-soluble so you want to take them with a meal that includes a bit of fat. Taking them with (e.g.) a glass of water and an apple means they won't properly get absorbed by your body.

I don't really notice when they're working. But there have often been days when I have felt sluggish and "bleh," and I look back in the afternoon wondering if I've forgotten to eat a meal or drink coffee, and realized that I didn't take the vitamin D. So it's definitely not a placebo effect, it really does bump up my energy levels.
posted by ErikaB at 3:15 PM on September 20, 2011

It started working just about immediately for me, and it makes a huge, huge difference in my quality of life.

Everyone I've spoken to and everything I've read seems to agree that you really need to take at least 1,000 IU daily if you want to see any effects, and for some folks, more like 2k-5k daily. Just keep pushing it up higher than you think you ought for a while, before giving up hope.

I take a 2k pill every morning in darker weather, and 4k total on particularly bad days. I have one friend who takes 4k every day, but most of my friends who use it just take 1k daily.
posted by Eshkol at 3:36 PM on September 20, 2011

Vitamin D is fat-soluble, so it sticks around but it also takes a while to build up stores. If you're low, like the vast majority of us, the rule of thumb I've read from naturopaths* is 10,000 IU/day for 2-4 weeks* and then back off from there. It's only been a little over a week and you've been taking relatively low doses--give it time. And like ErikaB says, you gotta take it with food.

*Caveat: they're naturopaths
posted by Anonymous at 4:29 PM on September 20, 2011

I take 3000-5000 IU per day, year rounds, for SAD. Couldn't tell you how long it took to kick in for me; it's only in looking back that it's clear what didn't happen. There's been a lot of research on vitamin D supplementation for depression and seasonal affective disorder. Highlights: Greatest effect occurs after 6 months of supplementation. 4000 IU is considered high, but is safe for adults (possibly not seniors) and has shown results in multiple studies. As little at 400 IU has been shown to response in mood and blood levels, in as little as 5 days.

Here's a June 2011 meta-analysis of previous studies. Some studies show no difference at 400 IU daily. One-time dose of 100,000 IU (!) showed results. Much more to read

In short: it was a crapshoot whether the 600 IU daily for a week was going to product a noticeable effect. 1000 IU or 2000 IU daily are almost certainly fine; check in with your doctor to confirm, and plan to supplement for several months before giving up.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 4:39 PM on September 20, 2011

Last month I was diagnosed as Vitamin D deficient based on tests by my primary care physician, who instructed me to start taking 5,000 IU of Vitamin D daily and to keep taking it. It may just be coincidence, but my general mood seems stronger, brighter, and calmer than it usually does at the turn of the seasons/beginning of shorter days.
posted by apartment dweller at 5:24 PM on September 20, 2011

I tend to notice improvement in my mood and focus the very same day with my vitamin D. I take between 2,000 and 5,000 i.u. every day that I remember (evens out to maybe 3 days per week?) and my last blood test put me right at the lower limit of normal levels. My doctor encourages the dose I take (I live in the Pacific Northwest).
posted by girlstyle at 6:25 PM on September 20, 2011

I also have noticed a positive effect, especially last winter (interior Alaska) on only about 600 units a day. But it took a week or so, maybe more.
posted by leahwrenn at 12:31 AM on September 21, 2011

Last winter I was confirmed vit-D deficient (very low). My MD started me out on 1000 IU daily plus 5000 IU 1x week (I took that on Sundays). I started to really notice a difference about mid-week the second week and am about to start the same regimen now that autumn is gearing up.
posted by moojoose at 2:41 AM on September 21, 2011

I start popping 'em like candy when the cold dead grey of Portland hits. 3000-5000 IU through the whole damn rainy season, slightly lower to transition. I feel buzzed if I don't wean myself on/off, and GOSH-WIDE awake if I take a capsule too late in the day. The difference in my mood is swift and persistent. More an eraser of lows than a booster of ups, though.

Re: $ happy lights, bask under full spectrum bulbs in your AM bathroom. 15 min cardio for immediate, if temporary, lifts.
posted by fritillary at 3:47 AM on September 21, 2011

Vitamin D3 I think is really an under-hyped minor miracle. I was diagnosed as deficient and given a 1000 IU perscription last year. I didn't think much of it but took the pills anyway, and after a few weeks I was pleasantly surprised with improved mood, energy, and sleep quality. Also, it seemed to help with some minor skin and digestive issues, and I haven't had a single serious cold since I started taking them.

I still take a few 5000 iu pills a week, and plan to up the dosage as it gets darker.
posted by tempythethird at 3:54 AM on September 21, 2011

Nthing the others - I have these sublingial orange flavored dots. When my mood starts slumping, I drink some water, take 2 or 3 of those and it perks up. Sometimes it takes a day, but then it's level for a few days before I think of it again. If I actually bothered to take them preventatively, I'd probably have far less mood swings and not make the connection, but there you go.
I did get my levels tested, btw, and I think my level was 25. It's supposed to be closer to 65 or 75. My doctor recommended 2000 iu a day, taken with the fattiest meal of the day.
posted by 8dot3 at 10:02 AM on September 21, 2011

I take 5,000 IU every morning and definitely notice a difference if I go a few days without.

Dosage recommendations for Vitamin D seem to be all over the map as new research indicates that previous guidelines aren't effective. The Mayo Clinic says that "Safety research supports an upper limit of a dose of vitamin D to be more than or equal to 250 micrograms daily (10,000 IU of vitamin D3)."

Two other supplements that have made a HUGE difference for me in general level of depression symptoms and ability to get through the winter: fish oil and iron. I take enough fish oil to get 4,000 mg of EPA+DHA a day, and I take the recommended dosage of Floradix iron supplement. I proved and re-proved to myself (by running out and procrastinating on restocking) that the fish oil is essential for me; 300 mg of Wellbutrin didn't work as well as 150 mg of Wellbutrin + 4 grams EPA/DHA does. The iron makes a big difference too; I think that when I have low iron levels and feel fatigued as a result, my back brain interprets it as being the lack of energy caused by the depression and decides "oh, I guess I'm depressed — let's head for the Pit of Despair and stay there."
posted by Lexica at 11:19 AM on September 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Great - thanks, everyone; that's been very helpful.

I've actually been feeling much brighter today, despite the continuing grey murk outside (open all the curtains, sigh, turn on all the lights...). That could well be down to the awesome power of placebo, but I'll carry on with the 1000 IU doses and see how it goes. There's another 200 IU in my multivitamin, and I eat salmon a couple of times a week, too.

I knew the bottle said to take with food, but it's useful to know that it's specifically the fat in the meal that's important; last week's breakfasts of banana plus black coffee won't have been doing the trick. (I'd have stopped those anyway, mind, after the fruitfly population explosion that the peels in the bin enabled. Gah. I swear they spontaneously generate.)

Those of you encouraging me to go to the doctor and get my blood tested, you're right, but it's easier said than done. The healthcare system here is excellent, but the way it works is that you describe your symptoms to your GP and he or she decides what tests, if any, to run. Maybe it would be OK for me to say specifically "I feel a bit run down, could you test my vitamin D levels?" but then again, maybe it would get me labelled as a demanding patient. I can't easily change GP, so I prefer not to push my luck.

Regarding the other things people have suggested: Exercise does help, but it's surprisingly hard to persuade myself to do any when I'm feeling down. Full-spectrum lightbulbs are on my shopping list. Apparently I can get melatonin here, which comes as a surprise - and is great to know, given that I seem to skew nocturnal at the drop of a hat. (Case in point: it's 1am here and I'm not tired yet.) I can get fish oil capsules too. I'll stick with just the vitamins until I'm sure how they're affecting me, though. As for iron, the multivitamin I take is aimed at women and contains 100% RDA of iron, so hopefully I'm not anaemic. I know that Pit of Despair though...

Anyway, it sounds as if 1000-2000 IU is highly unlikely to kill me, and might or might not be enough to help; it seems like a reasonable compromise, in the absence of medical supervision. I think it's worth persisting, and perhaps upping the level when the days get seriously short. Happily, I finally thought to try a health-food shop rather than a chemist, and I found 800 IU tablets there: much less rattling.

And, These Birds of a Feather, thanks for the cautionary tale - if I think it's making matters worse, I'll stop!
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 4:21 PM on September 21, 2011

I'd like to add that I'm hypothyroid and Vitamin D deficient (in TEXAS), and when I started supplementing per my dr. I noticed these other side effects:

1. My LDL cholesterol which had been borderline high lowered by 30 points; HDL also came down.

2. The muscle cramps that would seize up regularly after cardio in my feet and legs went away.

3. My skin became less dry and flaky, and felt softer. WEIRD.

Now for the bad side effects, which my dad warned me about: kidney stones. Most people don't get them, true, but if you're prone to them (or are also supplementing with calcium and/or potassium, combining with multivitamins or take other medications that raise your calcium levels), it CAN happen. The best way to avoid that is to be reasonable with your supplement dosing, drink lots of water and treat UTIs immediately.

If you decide to self-supplement, here's a good guideline (can help you with the discussion you'll eventually have with your doctor, too): Vitamin D fact sheet.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 2:46 PM on September 23, 2011

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