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How to get enough vitamin D in Alaska during dark months

Katie Medred
Saara-Sofia Ulfstein. Yle News.

Vitamin D is essential for the health of the human heart and is associated with bone and joint maintenance and helps prevent cancer, disease and diabetes. Despite the many wonderful things a little D can do, it is not always easy for Alaskans to naturally acquire enough, especially during winter.

Sure, it's true that it's only the end of September, but the first snow has (technically speaking) fallen in many areas around Alaska. And although, Alaskans may hate to admit it, the days are getting shorter and all the signs of winter are upon us: darkness included.

According to the experts, vitamin D is more or less "magically" produced in our skin after the appropriate amount of sun exposure. Therefore, if we do not get enough sun, it is likely we do not get enough Vitamin D. Surely you can see where that leaves most Alaskans come mid December.

But there is good news, according to health experts, we humans have many vitamin rich food options in which to choose from. Vitamin-D enriched milk, margarine and other dairy products help replace D storage. And, to the relief of many in-state winter occupants, fish, particularly salmon, is an excellent source of the vitamin.

In 2008, researcher Meredith Tallas spoke with science writer Ned Rozell to help elucidate the unique Alaskan relationship with vitamin D. Tallas, a former University of Alaska Fairbanks student who, in 1983, conducted a study on sun exposure and its relationship to northern residents' vitamin absorption, admitted that Alaska is an obvious place to study vitamin D deficiencies because of the "low winter light" environment. In her research, Tallas looked at blood work from 47 Fairbanks volunteers, only to find exactly what she expected: Residents' blood contained the most vitamin D in the month of July and the least in March.

On average, Tallas' study showed natural exposure to vitamin D dipped beginning in August and lasting until March, with the occasional anomaly whenever a volunteer left Alaska for a little R & R. In her final thesis, Tallas explained: "When someone had gone to Hawaii, we could see, very exactly, a significant spike in their vitamin D levels. The only surprise was how it came a month or two after (the trip)." She added, "Presuming that an individual's lowest circulating vitamin D level is found in March or April, such trips could potentially have a very significant effect in improving late winter vitamin D status. Unfortunately a majority of Alaskan residents do not take such trips often."

The alternative? Tallas and other experts advise Alaskans to eat foods rich in vitamin D including shitake and button mushrooms, eggs, mackerel, salmon, tuna, herring and sardines through the winter months. If possible, Alaskans should consider regular vitamin D supplements or a few teaspoons of cod liver oil daily -- along with a mid afternoon walk.

Remember: it only takes 20 minutes in direct sunlight (tanning beds don't count) to get enough D for the entire day.

Contact Katie Medred at katie(at)alaskadispatch.com