A true Pacific Northwest winter has finally settled on Oregon and Washington. The breaks between rainy days are so few that the puddles around the Chicken Fountain have no time to dry out, and WU has even been graced with a couple days of snow. Areas farther north have experienced school closures thanks to heavy snow and ice. While these bigger changes are easy to see in the outside world, winter also brings some internal changes that are more difficult to spot.
The Northwest winter brings increased chances of developing a vitamin D deficiency or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). On the shortest day of the year, Salem only gets around eight hours of sunlight. Now, in February, it gets a little over 10 hours. Even if all those days were sunny, it might not be enough for some people. Speaking to a University of Washington blog called Right as Rain, Doctor Heather Tick said, “Even if you go to the top of Mount Rainier in the middle of winter and get a sunburn, you won’t be getting the UVB rays you need to make vitamin D.”
What exactly is vitamin D? According to Bishop Wellness nurse practitioner Susan Robbins, “Vitamin D is a prohormone that is synthesized in the skin after exposure to ultraviolet radiation, or absorbed from food sources or supplements. The prohormone is converted to the metabolically active form in the liver and subsequently the kidneys.” In short, it helps with bone development and growth.
A vitamin D deficiency is not exactly easy to catch. Robbins said that “overt vitamin D deficiency is now uncommon in developed countries,” as subclinical deficiency are more common. She lists people living in far northern areas, people with darker skin and people that suffer from malabsorptions (such as celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease) as having higher risk for vitamin D deficiency.
Vitamin D deficiency is mostly asymptomatic, and its effects will only show up if the effects are long term. However, it is possible to take supplements if one suspects a vitamin D deficiency. Robbins also recommends going outside and eating fatty fish, like salmon and tuna, egg yolks or fortified foods such as milk, cheese, yogurt, orange juice and cereals.”
Both SAD and a vitamin D deficiency can be side effects of a gloomy Pacific Northwest winter.According to the National Institute of Mental Health, SAD is a subset of major depressive disorder, and is characterized by typical symptoms of depression recurring seasonally for at least two years. Living far from the equator, younger people, women and people with a personal or familial history of depression or bipolar disorder are at higher risk for SAD.
Like vitamin D deficiency, there are medications that one can take to help with SAD. Light therapy is also recommended. Bishop Wellness Center’s Mind Spa has a therapy light that can give people in need of a little sunlight (albeit artificial) some relief. Unfortunately, therapy lights may mimic sunlight, but are not a replacement for it. Therefore, those who have a vitamin D deficiency won’t be able to get the same benefits from it that someone with SAD might.
For anyone with SAD or a vitamin D deficiency, Bishop Wellness Center Director Don Thomson recommends staying active, even if it can be trickier in the winter months. Sparks Gym is a good option, or you can do little activities in or out of doors to get your heart rate up and endorphins going. Bishop Wellness Center has professionals that can assist you if you suspect that you might have either SAD or a vitamin D deficiency.