I do not remember experiencing a more joyful, active winter as I am feeling this season. My mind is active, my mood lifted and I’m excited about my future. Last winter was a different story. I wrote the following column last year while in the depth of Seasonal Affective Depression. I was sad! Many readers empathized with me or gained understanding into their own depression after reading my story so I offer this experience again in hope more people seek help for their seasonal depression and vitamin D deficiency.
It’s winter in North Idaho and I’m depressed. I don’t remember being depressed in winters past. I love winter—snowy Christmas mornings, snowshoeing Fourth of July Pass, harvesting our Christmas tree from Fernan Saddle, cooking rich tomato soup from canned vegetables harvested from my summer garden, jeeping in the white powder at Lookout Pass, heavy sweaters, heavier boots; wonderful memories. So why am I sad?
Being the person I am I think, “Just buck-up and get to work.” “You’re not sick.” “Quit complaining and just live with it.” I tell myself I should quit being sad and, if I put on a happy face, things will be okay. After all, I’m a therapist, relatively intelligent and in touch with my mental wellness. I should be able to fix me. I was wrong.
The week before Christmas my life turned upside down. I thought I had a brain tumor and was dysfunctionally and organically out of sorts. My blood pressure was high and my heart palpitating. I often felt anxious, sad, did not sleep and felt neck, jaw and shoulder pain—my whole body ached. I was dizzy all the time and struggled to walk a straight line.
It took all effort I could muster to rise from my couch. I started calling in sick to work and I thought I was getting old and wondered if I was dying. I remember sitting in my easy chair in the family room of our home and my wife, looking at my sad, desperate face asked, “What’s wrong?” I could only answer, “I am just so sad!” This scared us both.
I scheduled a visit with my family doctor to discuss an acute onset of dizziness (vertigo). My doctor asked many questions, examined my body and drew blood. We discovered hypertension and high cholesterol with all else normal but had to wait for the results of a few tests.
Two days later the news came; I am severely vitamin D deficient. The doctor prescribed Zocor for my cholesterol and 50,000 IU of vitamin D weekly for 4-6 months. The doctor explained the journey back to physical and mental wellness is a lengthy one taking months to build-up the vitamin D my body lacks. I decided to learn more about the disorder that effectively stopped my enjoyment of life. The following is what I discovered.
Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency might include hypertension, cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, achy and weak bones and muscles, lower immunity to illness, low mood and depression. Vitamin D comes from two sources, the sun and the food we eat. The further north one lives from the equator the less vitamin D they receive from the sun. Living above 42 degrees north latitude affects ones ability to receive adequate vitamin D from the sun during the months of November through February. North Idaho, my home, is 49 degrees north latitude and void of delicious, warm, solar vitamin D for four months.
If the sun offers vitamin D, how might one gain the vitamin when most specialist urge avoiding solar exposure at all costs? Some believe any exposure to the sun is unsafe but vitamin D is necessary for healthy bone growth and mental wellness. Bare your skin and let the sunshine in—if you dare. If one is susceptible to sunburn or has a history of skin cancer, use dietary supplements to gain vitamin D and avoid sun exposure.
Ultraviolet radiation from tanning beds and direct sunlight are carcinogens responsible for most of the estimated 1.5 million skin cancers and the 8,000 deaths due to metastatic melanoma that occur annually in the United States. Lifetime cumulative UV damage to skin is also largely responsible for some age-associated dryness and other cosmetic changes.
It is not known whether a desirable level of regular sun exposure exists that imposes no (or minimal) risk of skin cancer over time. The American Academy of Dermatology advises that photoprotective measures be taken, including the use of sunscreen, whenever one is exposed to the sun. Each person needs to weigh the risks and rewards of sun exposure and make a personal choice for their own mental and physical health.
Some studies suggest seasonal depression (Seasonal Affective Disorder—SAD) might be correlated to vitamin D deficiency due to lack of sun exposure and lack of availability to the healthy foods of summer. For those who cannot find adequate sun, light therapy might be the answer. Light therapy lengthens one’s day by adding artificial sunlight when no sunlight is available (usually early in the morning before sunrise).
Sitting in front of a light box (available on-line and at COSTCO) for 20-60 minutes daily might offer relief from seasonal depression symptoms. The box must be capable of offering 10,000 lux of light at eye level to be effective.
The food we eat—foods rich in vitamin D include cod liver oil, salmon, mackerel, butter, mushrooms, fortified cereals, and milk—also support and build vitamin D in one’s body. Grilled salmon with sautéed mushrooms on top of basmati rice drizzled with extra virgin olive oil is a treat which will help one live longer while becoming happy in the dead of winter.
I am now four months into the journey of recovery. The changes I’ve made include eliminating almost all cholesterol in my diet, ingesting fish oil and vitamin E each day, taking a small dose aspirin a day and taking long-term prescribed medicine for the first time in my life, exercising (by walking briskly) 2 ½ hours a week and preparing most meals I eat at home.
I am a private person but am disclosing this very personal issue in my life for this reason. Many friends and family with whom I’ve shared my story share similar symptoms in their lives. They then seek medical attention and discover they too have vitamin D deficiency. See your doctor. It takes minutes and might answer questions one has about mood, energy level, achiness or dizziness.
My life is better. The sadness has mostly disappeared, my cholesterol has dropped 70 points, my vertigo has decreased to once or twice a week and my energy level has increased substantially. I enjoy life much more than before and am looking toward the future. A simple blood test changed my life for the better. See your doctor and get tested.