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Ward off the winter weirds with vitamin D, good food -- and coffee

  • Author: Alli Harvey
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: November 3, 2016
  • Published November 3, 2016

Carla Hayes photographs the sunset at the Small Boat Launch neat the Port of Anchorage in Anchorage, Alaska, on Tuesday, September 13, 2016. Anchorage daylight is vanishing day by day, until winter solstice, when we’ll see about 5 1/2 hours. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

A friend once told me she was glad her health-conscious spouse was hooked on coffee. Without that one "vice," she joked, he might float away.

It was true. He ran marathon distances in the mountains for fun, was an indefatigable backcountry skier and ate 100 percent vegan because that diet worked best for him.

He also loved coffee. He was uncharacteristically cranky when it was in short supply. Honestly, this "vice" made me like him. I understood what his wife meant about his coffee addiction rounding him out as a relatable human.

I'm in no danger of floating away for lack of vices. But I have been taking a closer look at my overall health recently and making changes, just in time before the onset of winter blues. I'm doing my best to find habits that will keep me healthy and happy as darkness sets in. After all, winter solstice, with its 5½ hours of daylight, will be here in just seven weeks.

Vitamin D defense

Consider getting your vitamin D levels checked. Yes, at the doctor's office. Unfortunately, with a blood test. You're likely to find that your levels are very low, similar to other Americans living in northern latitudes, according to several studies.

This deficiency may be part of what has been bumming you out or causing sluggishness. To offset this, your doctor can prescribe high-dosage D for a finite period of time and an over-the-counter maintenance regimen afterwards.

I don't recommend starting a regimen on your own particularly since vitamin D levels can be toxic at high enough concentrations, but a common dosage for Alaskans is 4,000 IUD of over-the-counter vitamin D daily.

It may change your life. It changed mine.

Last spring, in the back of my mind I knew I wasn't getting enough vitamin D. But that same part of my mind figured I was making up for the winter deficit by soaking up the ample summer sunlight.

Not true. Most Alaskans are deficient in vitamin D, and the sunny summer months provide nowhere near enough to make up for what we miss in winter.

While light therapy from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) lights do not provide vitamin D, many people swear by their effectiveness in regulating mood. It makes sense — light in the morning cues our brains to get up and go, while waning daylight winds us down.

When most of what's out there is waning light or darkness, I'm ready to go back to bed. Full spectrum lights that cost about $50 can light up a dark morning and keep me on the move.

Cut down on booze

Here's one from the archives: I used to wake up on a Sunday morning after a big night out with friends and immediately go for a run. What's more, I loved it. I prided myself on my ability to rebound quickly from, or even in the midst of, a hangover.

No more.

I hate to admit it, but even an innocent weeknight drink can leave me sluggish in the morning. Wake up and tug on all of the layers to go for a run in the dark? Or close the one eye and dream my dreams for another hour? Booze stacks the odds in favor of the latter, but overall I know I'm happier when I go for the run.

I've cut down. I feel happier and I do more things I like to do outside. That's a pretty straightforward formula and I accept it, even though it means I'm old.

How about hygge?

Some Alaskans have probably all had a friend share an article about "hygge." It's the Danish concept that roughly translates to "coziness" and is charmingly pronounced "hoogah," making it my favorite word.

For me, hygge is the word for when I have a date with a friend to go ride our bikes in the snow and then beeline it to Beartooth for hot toddies. Or what snow looks like when I'm inside, especially on the couch under a blanket.

When it's dark, the Danes amp up their coziness with candles, fuzzy things, music and friends — finding something about winter to appreciate. And, hey, it gets dark in Alaska. We should import more hygge to soothe our cold, dark souls. I'm trying.

Real food, not sweets

Earlier this week, I wondered if a downpour of Tootsie Rolls and Snickers would bury me when there was a sudden and unusual deluge of candy in our house so we could stuff it in our fa– . . . I mean, hand it out to cute kids in costumes.

Now, my chubby belly can anticipate Thanksgiving. And never fear, I won't starve until Christmas because there will be a solid series of holiday parties to attend virtually every night of the week. Until then, it will only get darker and darker. Pile on the pounds. I dare you.

Here's the thing about sugar: For me, it's poison, and it's everywhere. If I allow it, sugar will rewire my brain to think I'm too skinny and I must consume more to survive. I should know I'll be fine if I don't have that extra half a bar (make it a whole bar) of chocolate.

There's science behind this and I'm offering the oversimplified version, but here is the antidote to my sugar addiction: real food. Not romaine rafts of quinoa with sprouted amaranth grain harvested under the full moon. Eggs. Fish. Fat. Meat. Suffice to say that eating well gives me the energy to do the things I love and stay sane as the days darken.

Winter's not really coming, it's here. I'm fortifying. I'm stacking my own odds so the winter weirds don't set in quite as easily.

Will I float away from lack of vices? Probably not. But I'll remain horrible to interact with before coffee.

Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.

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