Two months into 2014, winter storms continue to dump snow in the South, Northeast and Midwest regions. Temperatures plummeted to record cold across the nation.In the affected areas businesses and schools are closed and people are urged to remain indoors.
From November through February, the amount of time that people spend outside decreases, exposing the skin to lower amounts of ultraviolet B rays (UVB) from the sun. When UVB rays interact with our skin, our bodies produce Vitamin D, which is a natural defense against the winter blues.
According to Dr. Tyeese Gaines, a clinical instructor of emergency medicine at Yale School of Medicine and health editor of theGrio, Vitamin D is important because it helps the body absorb calcium, which our bodies need for healthy bones.
“As children, if you do not absorb enough calcium, it affects how bones are formed. For adults, not having enough calcium leads to osteoporosis — where bones become weak and more likely to break,” she explained.
The National Osteoporosis Foundation lists being over age 50 as one of the top factors that determine whether someone might be at risk for Osteoporosis. Elderly people have often shown a reduced ability to synthesize vitamin D and are also susceptible to having less than normal vitamin D levels. Generally, for people with darker skin, producing Vitamin D is particularly difficult. According to the Office of Dietary Supplements, greater amounts of melanin within dark skin reduce its ability to produce vitamin D from sunlight, thus increasing the chance of a vitamin D deficiency during the winter months. Not to mention the fact that in winter, you cover up more, limiting the skin’s exposure to the sun.
Studies have connected the lack of vitamin D absorption combined with the cold winter chill to a mood disorder called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Six percent of Americans experience SAD, primarily in the northern climates. Another 14% are estimated to suffer from a milder version of this condition.
“Seasonal Affective Disorder is a mood disorder which looks similar to depression, however it happens during winter months when the hours of sunlight each day are shorter than in the other seasons,” said Dr. Gaines. “Some studies suggest that the lack of sun leads to lower Vitamin D levels and, in turn, lower serotonin levels, thus being responsible for Seasonal Affective Disorder. However, this is not yet proven.”
Symptoms of SAD can include decreased levels of energy, wanting to be alone and sudden change in appetite.
“People who are experiencing symptoms of depression for longer than two weeks should let someone know. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. He or she can start by speaking to their primary care doctor, which is important because depression can be caused by medical illnesses. A person who feels he or she is depressed can also start with a counselor, therapist or psychologist,” says Dr. Gaines.
Before you decide to fly south for the winter, some experts recommend that those suffering from SAD should increase their vitamin D intake and get outside more to expose bare skin to healthy amounts of natural sunlight. Vitamin D is also available in various doses over the counter or by prescription.
“Natural sources of Vitamin D include fatty fish such as tuna, salmon and mackerel. It’s also found in small amounts in cheese, eggs and beef liver,” said Dr. Gaines.
Within the African-American community the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that one-third of Americans with mental illnesses or mental health problems get the care they need. For those not opting for traditional medicine, family and faith have helped many African-Americans overcome hardship and maintain ideal mental health.
A recent more contemporary treatment for SAD is light therapy. Light therapy uses a special lamp with a very bright light that mimics light from the sun. This treatment would start in the fall or early winter, before the symptoms of SAD begin. But always seek professional medical advice.
Despite new treatments and studies, whether or not vitamin D causes SAD or is otherwise correlated is still unconfirmed. However, the effects of vitamin D on the body’s overall health are certain. Consult with your physician to determine how much vitamin D intake is recommended for you.
If you have thoughts of harming yourself or someone else please go to your nearest emergency room or call 911.