Exploring how a lack of Vitamin D intake can lead to a decline in mental health.

As winter approaches, and the amount of sunlight taken in by individuals decreases, another issue starts to arise. Most people rely on sunlight for their main source of Vitamin D, so lack of this sunlight can make individuals prone to Vitamin D deficiencies. 

“There’s seasonal depression, [also known as] seasonal affective disorder. In the winter months, people [often] have depression because of the lack of light,” school-based therapist Richard Prinz said. “It’s [caused by] a lot of different things, bad habits, ANTS and catastrophizing.”

Seasonal affective disorder, abbreviated as SAD, is a form of depression. There are spring and summer seasonal affective disorders, and then there are autumn and winter seasonal affective disorders. 

Autumn and winter-SAD is caused by an insufficient amount of Vitamin D in the body. Vitamin D helps with brain processes and, according to a meta-analysis published by Cambridge University Press, the production of serotonin (a neurotransmitter involved with the stability of one’s mood). With an inadequacy of Vitamin D, there is a shortage of this neurotransmitter, resulting in autumn and winter-SAD; in other words, the individual’s mental state is now unstable. 

This is the chemical structure of Serotonin (C₁₀H₁₂N₂O). Drawing by Aashi Venkat. 

There are measures that one can take to try to prevent this deficiency. For example, taking Vitamin D supplementary vitamins can help act as a substitute, along with eating foods rich in Vitamin D such as fish, mushrooms and cheese.

Are Vitamin D supplements helpful? According to Yale Medicine, Vitamin D supplementary foods are proven to be just as effective as actual sunlight. An issue with Vitamin D supplements is that some people tend to take too much, which can also be harmful to the body in other ways. 

Too much Vitamin D can cause a calcium build up in the body. This can then lead to potential damage to important organs such as the kidneys, causing the individual to likely have to be hospitalized. Either extreme of the scale is unhealthy, making it important to try and remain towards the middle of that scale. 

Although supplements are helpful, it is also important to try and have a more-balanced lifestyle.

“Try to keep a routine of really good sleep, eating schedule, exercise schedule, making sure that those things are all consistent,” guidance counselor Clay Stiver said. “Sometimes, it may even be breaking out of a routine.”

There are forms of therapy that can also prove beneficial, including phototherapy. Phototherapy, or “light therapy,” is when the patient sits next to a high-intensity light for approximately half an hour every morning, allowing the light to enter their body through their pupils. If the light does not enter through the pupils, but rather the skin, it is proven to be not as effective in helping the patient. 

This form of therapy can work, but it has numerous side effects, ranging from headaches, eyestrain, mild anxiety to even possible manic episodes, according to an article published by Harvard Health Publishing.

Antidepressants can also help with seasonal affective disorder. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, are one antidepressant that focuses on the patient’s serotonin levels. 

“The point of an SSRI [like Zoloft] is to block serotonin from being reabsorbed by the neurons in your brain, and leave more serotonin out so it can be effective,” biology teacher Kyle Jones said. “So, if serotonin is affecting mood, and the reason you don’t have enough is because your cell is taking it back in, then an SSRI would actually work. Now, the question is, is everyone’s mood with depression based off of that? We don’t know.”

It is commonly misinterpreted that a lack of sunlight automatically leads to depression. However, this statement is incorrect as it implies that there is a direct connection between the two: a very misleading take. The connection between the two is a lot more indirect, as insufficient sunlight can lead to problems that can eventually lead to SAD.  

“The problem is that these discoveries in neuroscience, people love to take them and run with them and present these oversimplified conclusions,” Jones said. “Science is extremely complicated, and the interactions of things in the human body and how they result in the things we care about, like mood, are extremely more complex than we understand. People love to simplify it and dumb it down to very simple terms that do not actually present the truth of what’s going on, and can sometimes be actually negative and presenting false ideas. So, we have to be very careful with not oversimplifying scientific concepts that are actually much more complicated.”

Not everyone with a Vitamin D deficiency has seasonal affective disorder; therefore, a lack of sunlight does not automatically mean one will develop SAD. According to an article published by the American Psychiatric Association, five in every 100 adults in the U.S. have seasonal affective disorder.

Considering that there are numerous factors that lead to seasonal affective disorder, finding the exact reason for someone’s depression tends to be rather complex. The reason rarely is just one specific thing. 

“With high school, there also comes more work, more responsibility,” Stiver said. “Mental health can come down to things at home, whether it’s parents, friends, siblings. That’s not even an exhaustive list, there’s a lot more than that.” 

In order to remain healthy, it is recommended to take around 10 micrograms of Vitamin D per day. Since Vitamin D helps both physically and mentally, it is important to reach the recommended amount, whether it be through sunlight, supplementary pills or foods rich in Vitamin D. 

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