Friday, 9 November 2012

About the sun, winter, and everything SAD

Autumn has a very strong presence in Finland at the moment. It is raining, sleeting and snowing but it is not winter yet. The sun makes a rare appearance and the winds are bitingly chilly. Not even the beautiful white blanket of snow has arrived yet.

If you look at the people in their regular meeting places, you don't see very many happy faces. Even less smiles and laughter. I am starting to think that Montesquieu was right with his meteorological climate theory, which holds that climate may substantially influence the nature of man and his society. His theory presented the people in the north "icy" and "stiff". Walking down the streets in a rainy, chilly November afternoon it is easy to agree with him.

But what can we do, if this is where we were born? Is it really the climate or is it the lack of sunlight, which leaves us feeling miserable and joyless? If the latter is to blame, the culprit is causing us to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
The symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder appear in the autumn/winter months and leave with the return of longer days of sunlight, in the spring. They include body aches and pains, changes in energy level, sleep/wake patterns, and appetite, avoidance of social situations, reduction in the quality of sleep, drop in energy level, weight gain, irritability, inability to complete tasks, decreased creativity, and even suicidal thoughts.

Some studies say that 14 % of the population suffer from SAD. What about the rest of the population? Many of us suffer from some of the symptoms mentioned above occasionally but somehow seem to be able to get over it. Or the symptoms are mild enough not to cause a major disturbance or turmoil in our everyday life. I do not think there are very many people who are great fans of short, grey autumn/winter days. They may feel a bit down but they get on with their business as usual. But I am pretty sure that everyone of us could do with some cheering up. Music, books, art, films, and parties are good for the body and soul. And then there is Christmas with colourful fairy lights and all things red and green and family and friends and holiday. At best it provides us a welcome break.

It is true that we spend less and less time outdoors when the weather is bad. It is also true that we work indoors without natural light, even windows in some case. And even if we do go out, the sun will not be there to greet us.

Thus our exposure to sunlight is limited. Vitamin D, known as the sunshine vitamin, is produced by the body in response to sunlight. It is also occurs naturally in a few foods -- including some fish, fish liver oils, and egg yolks -- and in fortified dairy and grain products.

I include here part of an article I found online:

What Do You Lack? Probably Vitamin D

Vitamin D promises to be the most talked-about and written-about supplement of the decade. While studies continue to refine optimal blood levels and recommended dietary amounts, the fact remains that a huge part of the population — from robust newborns to the frail elderly, and many others in between — are deficient in this essential nutrient.

If the findings of existing clinical trials hold up in future research, the potential consequences of this deficiency are likely to go far beyond inadequate bone development and excessive bone loss that can result in falls and fractures. Every tissue in the body, including the brain, heart, muscles and immune system, has receptors for vitamin D, meaning that this nutrient is needed at proper levels for these tissues to function well.

Studies indicate that the effects of a vitamin D deficiency include an elevated risk of developing (and dying from) cancers of the colon, breast and prostate; high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease; osteoarthritis; and immune-system abnormalities that can result in infections and autoimmune disorders like multiple sclerosis, Type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.

Most people in the modern world have lifestyles that prevent them from acquiring the levels of vitamin D that evolution intended us to have. The sun's ultraviolet-B rays absorbed through the skin are the body's main source of this nutrient. Early humans evolved near the equator, where sun exposure is intense year round, and minimally clothed people spent most of the day outdoors.
"As a species, we do not get as much sun exposure as we used to, and dietary sources of vitamin D are minimal," Dr. Edward Giovannucci, nutrition researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health, wrote in The Archives of Internal Medicine. Previtamin D forms in sun-exposed skin, and 10 to 15 percent of the previtamin is immediately converted to vitamin D, the form found in supplements. Vitamin D, in turn, is changed in the liver to 25-hydroxyvitamin D, the main circulating form. Finally, the kidneys convert 25-hydroxyvitamin D into the nutrient's biologically active form, 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D, also known as vitamin D hormone.

A person's vitamin D level is measured in the blood as 25-hydroxyvitamin D, considered the best indicator of sufficiency. A recent study showed that maximum bone density is achieved when the blood serum level of 25-hydroxyvitamin D reaches 40 nanograms per milliliter or more.

"Throughout most of human evolution," Dr. Giovannucci wrote, "when the vitamin D system was developing, the 'natural' level of 25-hydroxyvitamin D was probably around 50 nanograms per milliliter or higher. In modern societies, few people attain such high levels."

What really dawned on me quite recently is that vitamin D could actually help to reduce some of the aches and pains we all have from time to time. After that I have not missed my daily dietary supplement of vitamin D.

Another form of SAD treatment that makes sense, is exposure to artificial light, which imitates sun light, the so-called light therapy. It can come from varied light sources (including incandescent light). This involves daily exposure to light through the use of a 10,000 lux light box or a light visor, both of which provide cool-white fluorescent light. The latest invention being the light earplugs. I do not know enough of them to say whether they are just a good placebo or a real relief to SAD sufferers or people who just want an uplifting experience.

Also the drugs which are used to treat normal depression have been known to be helpful in treating SAD. Not my first choice, though, but better than the worst alternative, surely.

A week or more in the sun would certainly do the trick, but if you, for some reason, cannot travel, what else is there. I wish I could offer a simple, straightforward answer to the question. And if I could, I would probably be famous. But I do have an idea I will be wanting to try this winter.

It is clear that you can fool your mind. You can fool it into thinking that you are exercising. Under hypnosis images of running or playing basketball are known to cause your heart and respiratory rates to go up and your muscles to tense and activate. So if you imagine yourself being in the sun and enjoying its warmth on your skin, would it not have similar physiological and chemical changes as well as benefits? Would it not treat you to your necessary daily dosage of natural sunlight?
No studies exist. It also sounds improbable that the level of vitamin D would be raised by mental images, but stranger things have happened. There is no danger in trying it out and at best you get the benefit of relaxed body and mind. Also, I do not think we have as yet discovered everything there is to the mind-over-body - link.

So here's how I am going to do it.

Form an image of yourself on a beach where you would love to spend your holidays if you could. Make the image and the place where you want to be as authentic as you can: include as many of your senses as you can. It will help you if you use a place where you have already been. Take you time to find the right place. There is no rush. Also make sure that you are physically in a place where nobody will disturb you and that your position is comfortable and you are warm enough.

Feel the warmth of the sun, slight warm breeze on your skin and hair... Smell the sea.... Feel the salty taste of sea in your mouth..... Listen to the waves.... Hear the seagulls.... Feel the sand slip through your fingers and bury your toes in the warm sand..... If you like water, you can even feel yourself swimming or floating weightlessly in the warm water.... Look up to the blue sky and experience the carefree feeling of the first day of your holiday.... Let everything else go and just enjoy being there.

This will be your own private place and you can make what ever you want with it. It can change from day to day. You can change it. You can use it to get rid of the thoughts that are bothering you just by releasing them for the wind to carry away or by building a fire on the beach and burning them there. You can picture yourself there in perfect health and as happy as you ever wanted to be. This is your moment and it is as perfect as you want it to be.

And now I am off for a long run. (Physical exercise is good for keeping your spirits up.)

Note to reader.

1. Not all of you suffer from the lack of sun light, so just do this exercise to enjoy relaxation after a hard day at the office and get rid of your high cortisol (the stress hormone) levels.

2. I try to post once a week so normally you should have something new to read by the next weekend.

3. Number 2 failing, I will post when I can. :-)

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