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OPINION: Dark days call for dose of D

December 8th, 2017 | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

It's dark, pretty much no matter where you live in Alaska right now. We're in the tunnel; the one that makes most of America shake its head in disbelief that people actually live where the sun shines so little, if it all. But Alaskans by-and-large deal with the reality of winter solstice.

Some of us have sun lamps to help, or string up a lot of holiday lights to raise our spirits. Others focus on the holidays, spend more time with friends and family, and volunteer in the community. But while we may roll out all the coping skills in our repertoire, there is one part of us that can't keep up during the winter months. Without the sun, we just can't produce vitamin D safely.

I know this. I've known about vitamin D ever since my mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 20 years ago; known the links between the unkind disease that made her unable to walk and barely able to feed herself or paint or write. See, they don't know much about the disease, and treatment is minimally effective at best. The one thing they do know is that people in southern locales rich with sunshine are much less likely to get it.

Those sunny-state people have us beat when it comes to vitamin D. So I know about D, and I make sure my children take it every day; (they like peppermint flavored edible versions.) But like so many other things, I let my own dose slide here and there, until earlier this winter, that is. That's when a local health fair offered a low-cost blood test to screen for a variety of factors. What I found was that, for the most part, I was extremely healthy. Cholesterol levels were awesome. Blood sugar testing came back good. No red flags to be found, except ... you guessed it, when it comes to vitamin D. I pretty much live outside all summer, farming in the fields and gardens around my house and enjoying the sunshine when it is out religiously.

But none of that mattered when it came to my vitamin D levels. The doctor who reviewed my test results with me recommended a whopping 5,000 mg a day based on my low levels. I found some that were chocolate-flavored, sort-of, and resigned myself to taking a pill every day.

The list of reasons you should think about your D levels is long. Without vitamin D, you are at risk of breaking bones, weakening muscles and a depressing the immune system. Vitamin D deficiencies have been linked to immune system disorders like diabetes and multiple sclerosis, heart disease and even high blood pressure. There are even studies that show vitamin D as a preventative measure against some cancers, like breast cancer.

But even if you avoid all of those risks, there are strong links between low vitamin D levels and seasonal affective disorder; something many Alaskans experience from time to time, while some 20 percent of Alaskans struggle deeply with it. Seasonal Affective Disorders can cause depression at worst, and at best, leave us with low energy this time of year. Chances are, if you feel like sleeping all day this time of year, it's more than general malaise at work and you probably aren't coming down with the flu.

So what can we do? While many subscribe to the idea that getting vitamins from naturally occurring foods is the best tactic, in the case of vitamin D, there just isn't a food out there that can combat critically low D levels like those found in so many Alaskans. The only way to truly boost your levels, doctors say, is to take a pill, or ingest a liquid version of the vitamin.

While it's best to get a blood test before taking high levels, all of us can feel pretty safe taking 500 international units (IU). The Institute of Medicine's guidelines for how much vitamin D to take say 400 IU for infants under the age of 1, 600 IU for those age 1 to 70 and 800 IU for those over 70. Pregnant and nursing women should take 600 IU, the institute says. But others have recommended 1,000 IU is more appropriate in northern climates. And if your blood test indicates your levels are scraping the bottom of the charts like mine, you will get a much higher recommendation, at least until the levels come up.

Now everyone's reaction to taking large doses of vitamin D is going to be different, but what happened to me was I almost immediately had energy coming out my eyeballs. For about a week, I was a walking whirlwind, able to stay productive throughout the day without the afternoon lull that typically sends us racing for the coffee pot.

That effect faded, but I've noticed other things. I cut my thumb badly a few weeks ago, and it healed with extraordinary speed. Other aches and pains have subsided. And best of all, I'm not exhausted all the time, except when I stay up way too late "researching" on the internet. Maybe it's the placebo effect, but for me, taking vitamin D has made a profound difference on my winter, and hopefully, on my long-term health. It's well worth a little research and a conversation with your health care provider — just because it's dark outside doesn't mean we have to suffer.

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