Study: Vitamin D Deficiency May Increase Risk for Addiction to Opioids, Ultraviolet Rays


Researchers hypothesized that people may look for the UV-B type of UV light because they are unaware of their need for endorphins.

New findings in Science Advances suggest that addressing the common problem of vitamin D deficiency with low-cost supplements could play a part in combating the ongoing opioid addiction epidemic.

Previous studies have found that exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays increases endorphin levels in mice, which then display behavior consistent with opioid addiction because the endorphins are chemically related to morphine, heroin, and other opioids, according to David E. Fisher, MD, PhD, director of the Mass General Cancer Center’s Melanoma Program and director of MGH’s Cutaneous Biology Research Center (CBRC). Fisher and his colleagues hypothesized that people may look for the UV-B type of UV light because they are unaware of their need for endorphins.

The objective of the study was to understand the relationship between vitamin D, its signaling in the body, and UV- and opioid-seeking behaviors. In one arm of the study, the team compared normal laboratory mice with mice that were deficient in vitamin D, either through special breeding or by removing vitamin D from their diets.

“We found that modulating vitamin D levels changes multiple addictive behaviors to both UV and opioids,” said lead author Lajos V. Kemény, MD, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow in Dermatology at MGH, in a press release. When the mice were conditioned with modest doses of morphine, the ones deficient in vitamin D continued seeking out the drug had less common behavior among the normal mice. However, when morphine was withdrawn, the mice who had vitamin D levels were more likely to develop withdrawal symptoms, according to the press release.

Further, the study found that morphine worked more effectively as a pain reliever in mice with vitamin D deficiency and the opioid had an exaggerated response in these mice. These data suggest that vitamin D deficiency increases addictive behavior, according to the study. This finding was supported by several accompanying analyses of human health records, in which 1 showed that patients with discreetly low vitamin D levels were 50% more likely than others with normal levels to use opioids. Meanwhile, patients who had severe vitamin D deficiency were 90% more likely.

An additional analysis found that patients diagnosed with opioid use disorder (OUD) were more likely than others to be deficient in vitamin D and these findings could provide more significant implications, according to Fisher.

“When we corrected vitamin D levels in the deficient mice, their opioid responses reversed and returned to normal,” Fisher said in the press release.

He added that although more research is necessary, he believes that treating vitamin D deficiency may offer a new perspective to help reduce the risk for OUD and reinforce existing treatments for the disorder. “Our results suggests that we may have an opportunity in the public health arena to influence the opioid epidemic,” Fisher said in the press release.


Vitamin D deficiency may increase risk for addiction to opioids and ultraviolet rays. Massachusetts General Hospital. June 11, 2021. Accessed July 8, 2021.

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