According to a new Massachusetts General Hospital study, published in Science Advances, people with low vitamin D levels are more likely to develop opiate dependency or addiction, and the deficiency may be corrected with inexpensive and easily accessible supplements.
“Our results suggests that we may have an opportunity in the public health arena to influence the opioid epidemic,” said Dr. David Fisher, director of the MGH Cancer Center’s melanoma program and an author of the study published Friday.
Fisher and his colleagues discovered that a lack of vitamin D enhances the need for opioids, potentially putting people at a greater risk of addiction.
In one part of the research, normal lab mice were compared to mice lacking in vitamin D. When the mice were conditioned with small amounts of morphine, those deficient in vitamin D continued to seek out the opiates.
The non-deficient animals showed less of this behavior.
According to the study, when the mice’s vitamin D levels were adjusted back to normal, their opioid responses reverted to normal.
“The vitamin D level is regulating the behavioral response to opiates, and this appears to be an evolutionary pathway,” Fisher said.
The latest study expands on Fisher’s prior research, which discovered that exposure to the sun produces endorphins, which activate the same receptors in the brain as opioids, explaining why people might engage in sun-seeking behaviors such as tanning addiction. The sole reason for our sun-seeking tendencies is to produce vitamin D, a sunlight vitamin that our bodies cannot produce on their own.
Fisher hypothesized that a lack of vitamin D would make the body more susceptible to the effects of opioids, and the animal studies suggest that he was correct.
“If vitamin D deficiency is present in mice, all of the key opioid responses like dependency and withdrawals and pain thresholds are exaggerated,” Fisher said.
Morphine was also shown to be more efficient as a pain reliever in mice with vitamin D deficiency in the research.
If this holds true in people, Fisher believes that people with vitamin D deficiency who use pain relievers may have increased euphoric effects and be more prone to get addicted.
Previous studies suggest that patients with opioid use disorder are more likely to be vitamin D deficient. Those with moderately low vitamin D levels were 50 percent more likely than those with normal levels to take opioids, according to one research referenced in Fisher’s work, while patients with severe vitamin D deficiency were 90 percent more likely.
Correcting vitamin D levels is simple and affordable with supplements available at most drug shops, and Fisher believes physicians will soon be suggesting the supplements to patients who may be abusing opiates.
“To correct the vitamin D level in large populations of people who are either at-risk or are already opioid addicts … is cheap and easy and safe,” Fisher said.
Vitamin D might be utilized to prevent, cure, or prevent relapse, according to Fisher. “Hopefully this will be tested,” Fisher said, adding that human clinical studies will be required to validate what was discovered in mice.