On Nov. 24, the sun set in the tiny Greenlandic town of Ittoqqortoormiit. For the next three months, the Inuit inhabitants of this isolated, icebound landscape will take their children to school in the dark, work in the dark, and pick them up in the dark.
And though townspeople admit that, "it can get depressing for people who weren't born here, especially in December," the local mindset is that living in darkness is just a normal part of life. Isn't there something they do to stay happy in the absence of the sun? Not really. "We just deal with it! Polar People don't mind!" (Hersher, 2016).
But if you are not one of the "Polar People" and looking for a solution to flagging mood and energy—especially if it occurs during the fall and winter months—you probably do mind, very much. In that case, the possibility that you are deficient in Vitamin D should be a top consideration. (Consider that the Inuit diet is very unusual compared to ours, given that they eat plenty of fatty sea food that is super rich in vitamin D.)
Reported levels of D deficiency are soaring, with an estimated three-quarters to 85% of US adults and teens falling short of this vitamin, which is not actually a vitamin, but a pro-hormone, that is converted into Vitamin D in the body.
As many as 20% of Americans are affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) each winter.
Decades ago most people worked outside in the sunshine and absorbed approximately 10,000 – 20,000 IU of Vitamin D in 15 minutes, many times more than the current FDA requirements of between 200 and 400 IU. Now the great majority of us work AND exercise indoors, missing out on that vital synergy of sun upon skin that creates Vitamin D, the so-called "sunshine vitamin."
Our health and mood is intricately tied to exposure to sunlight. It's no coincidence then, that as many as 20% of Americans are thought to be affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) each winter, suffering from the blues, fatigue, and in some cases, more serious depression as the days begin to darken and sunlight grows scarce. Suicides also tend to be highest during this time of year.
For the last 30 years we've been warned that sunshine is hazardous to our health, so just when we could be soaking up the summer rays and making plenty of Vitamin D, we are instead covering ourselves under hats and excessive amounts of sunscreen. As summer wanes, many of us will live under gray skies from September to mid-April, making it nearly impossible to get enough sunlight for optimal production of Vitamin D in the body.
Contributing to the problem is what some medical observers are calling "outdoor deprivation disorder" (ODD), described as a lack of physical activity out of doors and a growing disconnect with the natural environment. While most adults work inside every day, children aged 8 to 18, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, are spending more time than ever—seven and a half hours a day—using electronic media indoors, and less time outside. Case in point: when the No Child Left Behind law went into effect, 30% of kindergarten classrooms eliminated recess to make more room for academics.
The Importance of Vitamin D and Melatonin Testing
Besides the evident shortfall of Vitamin D with the advent of autumn and winter, levels of melatonin, the hibernation and sleep promoting brain chemical, also rise and fall (inversely) with light and darkness. When it's dark, melatonin levels increase, which is why we may feel tired when the sun starts to set, and as those who live in northern climes know all too well, that can be as early as 4pm in mid-winter.
If you know or suspect that YOU suffer from the winter blues a combination of bright light therapy, exercise and supplements, such as Vitamin D3, have been found to be helpful in relieving symptoms. Testing is the first step to detect and correct deficiencies or imbalance.
- Test your Vitamin D levels: Any reading below 30 ng/ml in a bloodspot test is a clear sign of D-deficiency. For all-around health, you want to be in the optimal zone between 50-80 ng/ml year-round. In the summer, getting plenty of sensible sun exposure is the way to go. In the winter, supplementing between 2000 and 5000 IUs of Vitamin D3 can raise levels into this optimal zone, resulting in a "sunny" mood, increased energy and decreased feeling of stress, sadness and depression. Always retest within 3 months to make sure you're staying within the zone.
- Test your Melatonin levels: dried urine testing measures the peaks and troughs of melatonin production at critical time points to determine average overnight production and whether levels are where they should be (e.g. high at night, low in the morning) in relation to cortisol, the master stress hormone.
- Bright Light Therapy during the day not only improves your emotional outlook, it also helps your sleep. Bright light in the morning decreases your daytime levels of melatonin, but it will raise nighttime levels, helping you to sleep well. Poor sleepers with SAD respond best of all to light therapy. A total of 30 to 60 minutes a day under a lamp something close to natural daylight, without glasses or contacts on can help you feel the benefits right away.
- Ecotherapy involves exercising outdoors instead of inside a facility. A research study done with 20 people who each walked outside and at an indoor shopping center rated feelings of self-esteem, depression, and tension after both walks. Improvements were greater when walking outdoors as compared to walking indoors (self-esteem: 90% vs. 17%, depression: 71% vs. 45%, and tension: 71% vs. 28%, respectively) (Mind, 2007).
It is late January in Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland. The moon is pink, reflecting the red of the sun now just a few degrees below the horizon. Right before noon, all the kids in town don snowsuits and mittens, and climb to the top of a nearby hill. Here they gather in a circle and sing a song for the sun as it prepares to rise again for the first time in 58 days: "Welcome back, my dear friend. Welcome back the sun." (Hersher, 2016).
Hersher, R. (2016, Jan 25). In The Arctic Circle, The Sun Will Come Up After 58 Tomorrows. Web article. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/01/25/464282974/in-the-arctic-circle-the-sun-will-come-up-after-58-tomorrows
Mind Ecotherapy: The green agenda for mental health (2007). Retrieved from