Dr. Cannell is a a board certified psychiatrist and activist. In the past, he contributed to the Black Lung debate by airing anti-smoking commercials on TV and hiring workers to distribute anti-smoking material. His work to reform public school systems and educational testing was noted in the New York Times, NBC and the Wall Street Journal. Currently, he is founder and executive director of The Vitamin D Council, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public about the health benefits of Vitamin D. He is the author of two recent theories on Vitamin D, including Vitamin D and Influenza and Vitamin D and Autism.
Erin: What is the relationship between Vitamin D and mental disorders?
Dr. Cannell: What the literature supports is that people with mental illness have low Vitamin D levels. It’s true for depression, schizophrenia, autism and others. There was one study conducted by Rinehold Vieth involving endocrinology outpatients who were given 4000 units of Vitamin D for 6 months, and their feelings of wellbeing improved significantly. There aren’t a lot of randomized, controlled studies on Vitamin D and mental illness, so this leaves you with an option: to treat or not to treat. I don’t think we can wait for randomized studies. Say you have a schizophrenic patient with low Vitamin D levels. What do you do? The ethical thing to do is to treat the Vitamin D deficiency. Given what we know now about Vitamin D, we have an obligation to treat it in any psychiatric patient who is deficient.
Erin: How much Vitamin D do we need daily?
Dr. Cannell: The dosage for adults is 5000 units per day, unless you’re morbidly obese. Then the dosage is 10,000 units per day. And you can purchase that amount at any pharmacy througout the states.
Erin: Isn’t the best source of Vitamin D from the sun?
Dr. Cannell: Yes the best source is from the sun, but to get significant amounts from the sun, your shadow needs to be shorter than you are. In other words, the sun has to be high enough in the sky so your shadow is shorter than you. There are many months in the winter when that’s not happening at all. So through the months of November to February, you’re not making much Vitamin D at all. And in months like September, October and April, you can only make Vitamin D for about 2-3 hours per day around solar noon.
Erin: What if the sun is highest in the sky, then how long do you have to stay in the sun to get enough Vitamin D?
Dr. Cannell: To make the Vitamin D you need you have to stay in the sun half the time it takes for your skin to turn pink. It’s a very quick, robust reaction, but not if you wear sun screen or a lot of clothes, like people who worry about skin cancer do. Practically speaking, the only way to get the amount you need is to supplement. You can’t get it from your diet in significant amounts, and you’d have to drink 50 glasses of milk a day to get the amount you need.
Erin: How many organs in our body does Vitamin D effect?
Dr. Cannell: 51 organs are direct targets of Vitamin D. It’s actually not a vitamin at all. It’s a steroid: the repair and maintenance steroid. It repairs and maintains the body. The only difference between Vitamin D and the other steroids is that the building blocks for the other steroids are made de novo [newly; starting from the beginning] in the body, probably because nature never conceived that we’d leave the sun, put on sunblock and march around inside. The way it works is that it targets more than 1000 genes and tells the genes what to do. 5% of your genes cannot act- they don’t know what to do- unless Vitamin D is present. In terms of mental health, the genes that make tyrosine hydroxylase, an enzyme involved in the rate limiting step for making monoamines, or the neurotransmitters in the brain, won’t be able to act without Vitamin D.
Erin: Do you need to take Vitamin D with anything else to optimize its effects?
Dr. Cannell: You need to take Vitamin D with the cofactors, zinc, magnesium and boron, all of which can be obtained by eating a handful of nuts and seeds. You also need to take it with Vitamin K2, which can be purchased as a supplement. It’s in some fermented cheeses and organ meats, so it’s hard to obtain from diet. You can get Vitamin K1 from your diet by eating a lot of green, leafy vegetables, and the body can convert Vitamin K1 to Vitamin K2. It’s important to note that many studies show most humans to be deficient in zinc and magnesium, and Vitamin D needs them to work. The Vitamin D receptor is like a glove. In each of the fingers of the glove sits a zinc molecule. So if you’re zinc deficient, the receptor probably can’t function properly. The Vitamin D Council offers a line of vitamin D supplements that has all the cofactors you need, too.
Erin: What changes should a person supplementing with Vitamin D expect to notice?
Dr. Cannell: They can notice an improvement in mood in as little as one month. After about 6 months of treatment, they’ll notice improvements in their nails, gums and skin. And the good news is there really is no negative side effects to supplementing with Vitamin D at 5000 units a day. It really can’t hurt anything.
Erin: You started a free Vitamin D clinic for children with autism. Can you tell me more about that and the link between Vitamin D and autism?
Dr. Cannell: Yes, any autistic child who comes to the clinic will be able to get his or her Vitamin D level checked. If they are deficient, they will be given Vitamin D. We’re not treating autism. We’re treating Vitamin D deficiency and hoping the parents see some improvement in autistic symptoms. What parents can do right now is stop giving their kids any kind of preformed retinol, because Vitamin A interferes with the function of Vitamin D. And parents should not be satisfied until their autistic child’s level of Vitamin D is in the high range of normal. If the level is normal and a pediatrician tells you it’s okay, it’s not. You want the level in the high range of normal.
Erin: Do you have a website people can go to for more information on vitamin D or the free clinic?
Dr. Cannell: Yes. They can go to Vitamin D Council and find the information they need.