STUDY: VITAMIN D DEFICIENCY MAY INCREASE OPIOID ABUSE
‘Cheap, easy, safe’ way to treat addiction
People with low levels of vitamin D might be at an increased risk for opioid dependence or addiction — and the deficit could be fixed with cheap and accessible supplements, a new Massachusetts General Hospital study indicates.
“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 found that vitamin D deficiency strongly increases the craving for opioids, potentially putting people at a higher risk for addiction.
In one arm of the study, normal lab mice were compared with mice that were deficient in vitamin D. When the mice were conditioned with small doses of morphine, those with the deficiency continued seeking out the drug. That behavior was less common in the non-deficient mice.
When vitamin D levels were corrected in mice, their opioid responses returned to normal, according to the study.
“The vitamin D level is regulating the behavioral response to opiates, and this appears to be an evolutionary pathway,” Fisher told the Herald.
The current study builds off Fisher’s previous work, in which he was able to find that exposure to the sun creates endorphins that activate the same receptors in the brain as opioids, which is why humans can exhibit sun-seeking behaviors like a tanning addiction.
The only explanation for the sun-seeking habits is to create the sunshine vitamin — vitamin D — which our bodies cannot make on their own.
Fisher thought that vitamin D deficiency might also make the body more sensitive to the effects of opioids, and the animal models are suggesting 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.
The study also found morphine worked more effectively as a pain reliever in mice with vitamin D deficiency. Fisher said if that’s also true in humans, it could mean patients with a vitamin D deficiency who are taking pain killers could get exaggerated euphoric effects — and be more likely to become addicted.
Previous research has shown that patients with opioid use disorder are more likely to be deficient in the sunshine vitamin.
One study cited in Fisher’s work found patients with modestly low vitamin D levels were 50% more likely than others with normal levels to use opioids, while patients who had severe vitamin D deficiency were 90% more likely.
Correcting vitamin D levels is inexpensive and easy with supplements that can be found in most drug stores, and Fisher said it’s “absolutely likely” doctors could soon be recommending the supplements to patients who are abusing drugs.
“To correct the vitamin D level in large populations of people who are either atrisk or are already opioid addicts … is cheap and easy and safe,” Fisher said.
Vitamin D could be used to prevent addiction, treat it, or avoid relapse, Fisher said. Human clinical trials will be needed to further prove what was found in mice, so, Fisher said, “Hopefully this will be tested.”