It’s been quite dark for around four weeks now and during midday we barely have enough light to film for 2 hours – even with our specialized low light camera and ISO 10000. We did have a great run two weeks before polar night began, with many clear and incredibly cold days, but the most beautiful light one could imagine. We got great footage and really used every minute outside to the fullest. Coming back inside however, we could all feel that the short days, the lack of sunlight and the physical aspects of our work are taking their toll on us.
One aspect of spending a winter in Antarctica is the effects the lack of sunshine in the winter months has on your body. Vitamin D, which is also called the sunshine vitamin, is one of the essential vitamins needed for good functionality of the human body. However, while we can have a small Vitamin D intake via foods like certain fish and artificially enriched foods like dairy, most of our Vitamin D is produced by our body itself – however, it can only be produced with the additional energy from the Sun, which is absorbed through our skin. Herein lies the problem.
First of all, it is quite cold in Antarctica (as most of you know) so most parts of our body are covered with clothing and no naked skin is exposed. At the same time this means that the active surface of our skin, which is exposed to light and can „collect“ energy from the Sun for Vitamin D production is limited to the very small area around our eyes (and even this area is oftentimes covered by Sunglasses or ski goggles). Additional to this, ever since December 21st passed here in Antarctica, the days and therefore the sunshine duration have gotten shorter and shorter. Now, during polar night, the Sun does not rise at all anymore. Prior to our departure we were warned that we were likely to experience a Vitamin D deficiency during our stay in Antarctica and we are now at the point where we are feeling the consequences of it.
If you google for Vitamin D deficiency, you will find a website http://www.healthline.com/health/vitamin-d-deficiency#symptoms2. There, many symptoms are stated, which can occur if you suffer from a Vitamin D deficiency. While I am not a doctor and cannot really self-diagnose, I can say for sure that I am experiencing some of the symptoms at the moment.
Muscle weakness: When I knew that I would be heading for Antarctica as part of a film team I started exercising even more in order to gain the physical strength to easily deal with the fact that we would have to move a lot of heavy film equipment for an extended amount of time. I know quite a few people who have ruined their backs by lifting heavy stuff for many years, so I wanted to be prepared and not be one of them. I do not have any issues running a half marathon or lifting weights at the gym. In fact, I have been exercising on a quite regular basis (with interruptions when we needed to film important behavior and spent many many hours outside) even here on Neumayer. Lately however I feel, that even a short 10k run is exhausting me more than I am used to and it takes almost a full day to recover from it. Also, when lifting weights, I am having a hard time pushing for the limits. I just don’t have the energy at the moment.
Unexplained fatigue: When I am at home, I usually sleep for around 7h a night, which is my sweet spot. Sleeping less and I’ll feel tired, sleeping a little more and will feel tired as well. In fact, I usually do not even need an alarm clock, but my body will just wake up „when it’s time“. While this has worked for me quite well in the first months of being in Antarctica, times have changed. I have upped my sleep duration to 8h a day, since 7h just did not work for me anymore. Now I am starting to feel that even 8h of sleep are letting me wake up tired in the morning and everyday I am woken up by my alarm clock instead of my inner clock. Getting out of bed has definitely gotten harder. However, this situation does not worry me and I know that it will pass once the Sun comes back and once the days get longer again. That being said, it is making work a lot more exhausting. Even as I am writing these lines, I cannot help but yawn and I have noticed that most people around me are yawning as well – even mid-day. Also a lot of moaning sounds are coming from everybody who has to fulfill the slightest amount of physical work – even from people who are way younger than me ;).
To me it seems like this fatigue and lack of energy / muscle weakness might be a remnant of a time, when humans did go into something like hibernation (as can still be seen with many mammals in order to conserve energy in dark winter times, when food is sparse). Maybe the lack of Sun in combination with cold temperatures is triggering a dormant mechanism in our body that usually is not triggered when normally live in busy societies and have lots of natural supplements for Vitamin D. However, here in Antarctica, we do not have any fresh vegetables anymore and have not had them for quite some time now.
All that being mentioned, I feel the only good way of dealing with this reaction of my body is continued stimulation. Whenever we are outside and it actually does get bright, I will really focus on the light and enjoy it. Back at station, I am working hard to maintain my biological schedule. I will stick to standard meal times and not give in to the cravings that my body is creating. I will continue to work out and to go running, even though it might be at a reduced intensity. I will continue to sleep 8h a day until I finally feel like it’s doing the trick for me again.
We’ve have been handed Vitamin D pills that we could take as a substitute, but I am not taking them for two reasons. Number one is that I do have a aversion against pharmaceutical products and I will only take medicine, if it is really necessary. Number two is, that even if they helped with all of the aforementioned symptoms, it would actually be altering the experience of a winter in Antarctica. Now, it can be argued if it is a smart thing to expose yourself to more „pain“ than necessary, but to me this level is still acceptable and closer to the truth of what it feels like to spend a winter in Antarctica. That being said, would I climb Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen – probably not, but then I have also never tried ;).
Now, we’re a few days away from midwinter, which is the day that marks the lowest transit elevation of the Sun here in the Southern hemisphere. After that, „days“ will start to become longer again and Antarctica as a while will become brighter every day until around July 21st, the Sun will finally rise again! I think we’re all looking forward to that day, even though polar night is quite beautiful as well!