Prairie Fare: Fall and Winter Darkness May Affect Health

NDSU

By Julie Garden-Robinson
Food and Nutrition Specialist,

NDSU Extension

 

We’ve reached the point in autumn when many of us leave home for work in the dark and return to our homes in the dark.
We are not necessarily working on special projects requiring early mornings and late nights. That’s just how the seasons work in the Midwest.
What’s your comfort level with darkness? My family is all about living in a bright, well-lit environment. I feel like I live in a department store because nearly every lamp, overhead light and undercabinet light tends to be “on.”
In fact, I typically walk around our home turning off lights in rooms with no one present.
“Alexa” or some other electronic helper is not attempting to maintain a well-lit ambience in our home. My family has the “lights on in every room” habit.
When I finish my rounds of seeing where everyone is and extinguishing light bulbs, the lights already are back on in some of the unoccupied rooms.
Maybe my family is just messing with me.
I was raised to save on power by flipping off lights. My parents taught me correctly, according to Energy.gov.
If you are going to be out of a room for 15 minutes, you should turn off the lights to save energy. Somehow, I think this 15-minute rule will be difficult to police in my home.
I agree that artificial lighting makes living spaces inviting. However, having access to natural light can affect our mental and/or physical health.
You may be aware of a condition known as “SAD,” or Seasonal Affective Disorder, which has symptoms that appear in the fall and can become more severe in the winter. A person with SAD may feel depressed, have low energy or trouble sleeping, or experience changes in appetite.
Be sure to discuss persistent SAD symptoms with a health-care provider to access appropriate treatment. Special lighting and other interventions are available.
Our lack of regular sunlight in the Midwest can have other effects on our health, too.
Without access to sunny days and adequate food or vitamin supplements, we may become “deficient” or at least “insufficient” in vitamin D. Vitamin D is known as the “sunshine vitamin” because sun exposure causes our skin to go into “vitamin D manufacturing mode.”
People in the northern U.S. are more likely to be vitamin D deficient than people in other parts of the country, especially during October to April.
For example, in a study of more than 2,839 women who had given birth in a Michigan hospital, 92.5% had insufficient blood levels of vitamin D.
Vitamin D is produced in our body by the action of sunlight on our skin. The process also requires naturally occurring conversions by the liver and kidneys to become active. In general, depending on where you live and the color of your skin, getting adequate vitamin D may take only 15 minutes of sunlight exposure in the summer and 30 minutes in the winter.
Standing outside with bare arms in the winter in North Dakota is not advised, though.
Vitamin D is important in maintaining strong bones and helping prevent rickets, osteomalacia and osteoporosis.
Vitamin D also has roles in immune function and functioning of our neuromuscular system. Some researchers have linked vitamin D deficiency to various forms of cancer, heart disease, depression, chronic pain, diabetes, high blood pressure and other health issues, but the researchers haven’t established that the lack of vitamin D causes the disease. More research is needed.
In the meantime, when sunlight is sparse, make efforts to get adequate vitamin D all year through food or supplements. The Food and Nutrition Board recommends 600 international units (IU) of vitamin D for ages 1 to 69 and 800 IU for people over the age of 70. However, the Vitamin D Council and the Endocrine Society recommend higher daily doses.
Visit the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements at ods.od.nih.gov/ to learn more about dietary supplements.
Check in with your health-care provider about taking a vitamin D supplement, particularly during winter months. Taking a vitamin D supplement certainly won’t hurt you and probably will help maintain your vitamin D status. Stay within the limit of supplementation recommended by your health-care provider or pharmacist.
New nutrition labels that include the amount of vitamin D per serving in foods will be appearing in 2020. Some companies already use the new format.
Unfortunately, few foods naturally contain vitamin D in high amounts. Fatty fish such as swordfish, salmon, tuna and mackerel are among the best natural sources of vitamin D. A 3-ounce portion of cooked salmon, for example, has 447 IU. An egg has about 41 units of vitamin D. Fortified foods, such as milk and some types of orange juice and cereal, have added vitamin D.
Here’s an easy recipe featuring vitamin D-rich salmon. Try it with your other favorite fish.
Breadcrumb-crusted Salmon (or Cod)
1 pound salmon (or cod) fillets (fresh or, if frozen, thawed)
1/4 c. Italian-seasoned breadcrumbs
1 Tbsp. dried parsley
2 Tbsp. olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
Cooking spray
Preheat oven to 425 F. Grease small baking dish or pan with cooking spray. In a small bowl, combine breadcrumbs, parsley, salt, pepper and olive oil. Place fish in pan and spread mixture over the top. Bake 20 to 25 minutes or until fish flakes easily with fork and reaches 145 F.
Makes four servings. Each serving has about 180 calories, 8 grams (g) fat, 5 g carbohydrate, 21 g protein and 180 milligrams sodium.
(Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension food and nutrition specialist and professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences. Follow her on Twitter @jgardenrobinson)

Duaine Marxen
Hettinger County Extension/ANR

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