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Vitamin D could be key to opioid addiction

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Why do some people get addicted to opioid painkillers?  It could be to do with their levels of vitamin D, new research suggests.

A deficiency can make some crave opioids, which increases the risk of dependency and addiction, say researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital.  People with low levels of the vitamin are 50 percent more likely to use opioids in the first place, and this rises to 90 percent in those with a severe deficiency.

Tests on laboratory mice found that their cravings for opioids diminished when they were given more vitamin D.

But what’s the connection? In 2007, researchers discovered that our skin produces endorphin, a hormone chemically related to morphine, heroin and other opioids, when it’s exposed to ultraviolet (UV) rays.  Endorphins are ‘feel good’ hormones that produce a state of mild euphoria.

Craving this endorphin rush could explain why so many of us sunbathe, the researchers surmise, and opioid painkillers provide a substitute when we don’t get enough sunlight and vitamin D stores diminish.

If the theory is right, opioid addiction could be countered with vitamin D supplements—or just getting some warm sun on our skin.

(Source: Science Advances, 2021; 7: eabe4577; doi: 10.1126/sciadv.abe4577)

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Article Topics: Morphine, opioid
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