A brand new study has led to a surprising discovery just in time for summer. It turns out that your desire to tan might provide a valuable hint as to how likely you are to abuse opioids—or become addicted to them. Vitamin D, that essential nutrient we get from the sun, has been found to have a direct correlation with opioid use. The implications of these seemingly unrelated occurrences are major. This newly confirmed relationship provides a relatively simple means of both detecting and minimizing the risk of an individual developing opioid addiction. 

But how, you are probably wondering, could something as simple as a vitamin 1) influence our behavior to such an extent that we aren’t engaging in an enjoyable pastime as we believe ourselves to be but are actually following an unconscious biological urge and 2) have any connection to the complex, multi-factorial beast that is opioid addiction?

Why Humans Seek Sunlight

It’s human nature to want to bask in sunlight from time to time, but it’s not simply for warmth, a desire for light, or achieving a bronzed glow. Scientists believe that this sun-seeking behavior is a biological instinct that evolved to ensure our bodies synthesize sufficient amounts of vitamin D, a compound that plays a key role in maintaining healthy bones. 

The main source of this vitamin is ultraviolet radiation, i.e. sunlight. It’s not something we can make ourselves and unlike most other vitamins, meaningful amounts can’t be acquired through food. For this reason, it’s hypothesized that we developed an innate desire to enjoy sunlight, and more importantly, that those who have low levels of vitamin D are more likely to unconsciously seek exposure to UV radiation and engage in activities that do so.

 So what does this have to do with addiction?

Vitamin D Levels & Opioid Use

The findings of the study suggest that individuals with a vitamin D deficiency are up to 90% more likely to use opioid painkillers. Not only that, but this deficiency could also result in these individuals being more sensitive to the effects of those drugs, and thus heightening their risk of developing an addiction to them. 

The good news is that vitamin D levels are something that can easily be tested for and measured. This provides medical practitioners with a solid external factor to use when prescribing an appropriate level of medication (it is this lack thereof that led to the overprescribing and of too-strong dosage practices that resulted in today’s opioid epidemic). 

The even better news, however, is that the addiction-heightening effects of a vitamin D deficiency are very reversible. This same study found that when vitamin D levels return to normal, sensitivity to opioids decreases. Not only does this lower a person’s likelihood of abusing these drugs, but it can possibly protect them from developing a dependence as well.  

Where To Get Vitamin D

If you are ever prescribed painkillers, maintaining adequate vitamin D levels could help lower your risk of falling victim to the circumstances that have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths (read: the country’s ongoing opioid crisis). The recommended daily intake for both males and females from ages 1 to 70 years old is 20 micrograms (mgc), although this number varies between countries and even other organizations. 

As mentioned above, sunlight is the best source of this vitamin. Depending on several factors such as skin color, time of the day, and the body part that receives the sun exposure, 5-30 minutes of sunlight without sunscreen a day can result in sufficient synthesis. Options to obtain vitamin D through food consumption are limited (those that do are often fortified with the nutrient artificially), and as such, supplements are the next best option. Here are some of the foods with the greatest vitamin D content (most of which fall quite short of the daily recommended amount):

  • Cod liver oil (1 tablespoon) – 34 mcg
  • Rainbow trout (3 ounces) – 16.2 mcg
  • Sockeye salmon (3 ounces) – 14.2 mcg
  • Raw white mushrooms (½ cup) – 9.2 mcg
  • Milk, 2% fortified (1 cup) – 2.9 mcg
  • Cereal (1 serving) – 2.0 mcg 

The Takeaway

Sun-seeking behavior can be indicative of a vitamin D deficiency. This, in turn, can heighten one’s response to opioids and increase a person’s likelihood of abusing them or becoming addicted. While staying out of the sun might be good for your complexion, but it could put you at greater risk of developing opioid addiction. 

The implications of these seemingly unrelated occurrences are major. Confirmation of this relationship between ultraviolet light, vitamin D, and addiction provides a rare opportunity amidst the unpredictable nature of opioid analgesic use: control.

Although the extent of vitamin D’s protection may be limited, it still offers a controllable—and more importantly, a measurable external factor that could help protect an individual against addiction. So far, it’s yet to be determined vitamin D’s efficacy when addiction has already taken hold. If you or a loved one need help to overcome addiction, finding a drug & alcohol rehab center near you is the best course of action you could possibly take.