January 27, 2011

Winter: The Other White Meat

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Is your name Mr. Freeze? Jack Frost? Do you have a thick, wintry pelt? Is your nose a carrot? If you said yes to any of these, you don’t need to read any further. If you said yes to the last question, I’d call your doctor, and maybe avoid any friends with pet rabbits.

The rest of us are united against our common enemy: winter. Don’t get me wrong, winter has a lot to offer — like skiing and delicious holiday-themed Starbucks drinks. But winter also comes with a lot of drawbacks — some of them obvious, some of them not. Luckily, this week’s What’s Up, Doc? will focus on some of the common clinical problems we see in this cold climate of ours and what you can do to prepare.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (Why do I just want to sleep all day and skip class?)

Do you ever feel like you just can’t get out of bed, even after sleeping up to 10 hours the night before? Then do you spend the day pigging out on chips, cookies or other major carbohydrates? Maybe you have noticed that you’ve been a bit irritable, and you are not your usual shining, outgoing self? You might be surprised to find that you’re not alone. You could be in the 10 percent of the population that has seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

We don’t exactly know what causes this problem, but it’s a type of depression that a lot of people get in the winter months. SAD is probably hooked up with our bodies’ natural circadian rhythm cycles, and so as the days get shorter our bodies feel weird and out of place. This manifests with the classic SAD symptoms of weight gain, irritability, increased sleepiness and the general blues. If you feel like these symptoms are really affecting your life, go talk to your doctor. He or she can talk to you about treatment options, and maybe you’ll find that you’ll get back to feeling like yourself soon.

Vitamin D Deficiency (Where’s my tan?)

I remember my mom always telling me to get out of the house and enjoy the sunshine, that it was good for me. Unfortunately the powerful sunscreen lobbying groups have been telling us that any sun on you is too much, but Dr. Spaceman and I disagree. It’s actually biologically important to get out and have some sun exposure, just not in excess. I won’t go into detail (your ultra-cool biochem friend can do that for me), but basically the UVB rays in sunlight are required to convert the vitamin D precursor we synthesize into the full vitamin molecule. Vitamin D is key for a lot of biological functions, most notably regarding calcium balance in the kidneys, gastrointestinal tract and bones. But studies have also shown that the vitamin is important in helping your overall immune system and could possibly help prevent some cancers, like colon cancer.

Unfortunately for us, in the winter at our latitude there just isn’t enough sunlight to go around, and this leads to around 40 percent of us being clinically vitamin D deficient (at a concentration of less than 20ng/mL). The FDA recommends that we have at least 600IU of the vitamin every day, and no more than 4000IU. Luckily there is an easy way to fix this: eat fatty fish like salmon or tuna, as 100g of either have around 300IU of vitamin D. If this isn’t an option for you, you can take vitamin supplements. I personally take 1000IU of vitamin D a day, but you should talk to your doctor before starting any new vitamin regimen.

Freshman 15 (Why do people keep calling me Santa?)

Recurring themes in winter are eating and relaxing. Both are great, but it’s important that you get out and actually exercise. If not every day, try going three times a week, and increase the regimen from there when you’re ready. You’ve heard all this before, but seriously: go sweat for at least 30-60 minutes when you exercise. If you can’t last 30 minutes, try doing two blocks of cardio at 15 minutes each with a break in between. Pick up a new sport, join a gym, get a workout buddy who will motivate you. You can do it! Also get your hipster friends to hook you up with sweet music for your iPod. The best way to get through a long workout is to distract your mind. I suggest Phil Collins. Or Black Sabbath. Whatever.

On the same note, try and cut back on carbohydrates. We eat a lot of cakes, cookies and bread in the winter, so try and cycle in a salad for lunch once in a while. You’ll have more energy and feel less bogged down from the heavy meals.

So all in all, winter isn’t really a bad time, you just need to check what you eat, get some vitamin D in you and watch out for SAD. Watch out for Yetis too, they’re tricky.

Campbell Bryson is a first-year medical student at Weill Cornell Medical College. He can be reached at cfb2002@med.cornell.edu. What’s Up, Doc? appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Campbell Bryson