Therese, Thursday 17 April 2008
I almost forgot I had a blog to write this week. I suddenly remembered yesterday that it was due today, but then forgot where I put my draft notes from a couple of weeks ago. This seems like a good time to write about polar T3 syndrome – a mental affliction that hits most winter-over persons. Forgetfulness is one of the symptoms.
I’ve learned some interesting facts about the disorder from base mate Pete de Joux, who was at Scott Base during the winter-over season in 2005. He spoke not only from personal experience (what he could remember of it) but also from having learned about research into the causes and effects from a medical and physiological perspective.
T3 is one of the thyroid hormones. The thyroid gland produces hormones which help to regulate your metabolism – how the body uses energy and at what speed. Researchers believe that living in Antarctica causes the muscles to hoard thyroid hormones in order to warm the body – at the expense of the brain. And whenever the concentration of thyroid hormone in the blood dips too low (hypothyroidism), the metabolism slows down and fatigue, poor memory, weight gain and depression set in. We who work in the Antarctic can experience a decline of thyroid hormone products accompanied by dulled thinking, lethargy, and mood disturbances – the symptoms of polar T3 syndrome.
Around the base, we just affectionately refer to it as T3. Since we are all aware of the syndrome and its effects, everyone is pretty tolerant of others’ forgetfulness and from time to time somewhat irrational behaviour. For example if someone has forgotten a meeting and arrives in a panic 10 minutes late, the rest of the group usually just look at each other, shrug their shoulders and say ‘T3’. And if someone is sitting at the dinner table staring off into the distance for minutes at a time, seemingly oblivious to everyone around, well we know it’s just something called the ‘Antarctic stare’ and don’t take offence when we are ignored.
At our induction in Christchurch, Dr. Gary Steele, who specializes in polar psychology, gave us a very lively and interesting talk on mental and physiological afflictions that potentially can affect us during our winter-over period. He described T3 syndrome and had some suggestions for coping with the symptoms: being organised in our work, writing lists, and keeping to regular schedules.
Apparently, a lack of vitamin D (caused by low exposure to sunlight) is related to hormone production and may have a link to the disorder. As the daylight disappears – currently we have only approximately 7 hours a day and soon there will be 24 hours a day without sun – the symptoms may even be getting worse here at Scott Base.
I’m not sure if researchers know for sure what link there is between sunlight, vitamin D and T3, but I plan to do my own experiment. At the American base McMurdo, there is a hydroponics facility with full spectrum lighting where visitors are welcomed to lie in hammocks and absorb the therapeutic effects of the artificial sunlight. I plan to visit often, so I’ll let you know whether it works to counteract T3 symptoms – well, that is, if I remember.