The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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August 14, 2012

How long can you live without sunlight?

Russian police have discovered 57 cult members living in an underground bunker in the Republic of Tatarstan. Many of the children ensconced in the bunker have never seen the sun, according to authorities. How long can you live without exposure to sunlight?

A normal lifespan, with the right diet. Recent research suggests that sunlight deprivation might increase susceptibility to a wide range of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, as well as infectious diseases like tuberculosis and the common cold.

But it's very unlikely that an adult could die directly and exclusively from prolonged darkness. The most plausible deadly scenario is that a lack of sunlight could prevent the body from producing vitamin D, which, in turn, would inhibit calcium absorption. Very low calcium levels might lead to spasms of the larynx, causing suffocation. A proper diet, however, can easily stave off this unlikely chain of events and other health consequences, even if you live in a bunker. Vitamin D is present in egg yolks, cheese, fatty fish, and fortified milk, juice and cereal.

Children are more vulnerable than adults to vitamin D deficiency, making death from darkness somewhat more plausible.

The most obvious risk is rickets, a disease that results in malformed bones and teeth. In its extreme forms, the grisly disease can lead to other health issues like breathing irregularities and cardiovascular problems. Some pediatric researchers believe that rickets might be a factor in some cases of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Rickets — which may have affected up to 90 percent of children living in the cities of Europe and North America in the late 1800s — may also have played a role in measles and whooping cough outbreaks. Still, as with adults, proper diet and supplements can prevent these complications.

Living exclusively in the dark may cause some other conditions that supplements can't cure. Sunlight helps trigger the body's daily cycle of serotonin, for example. If that production cycle becomes irregular, you can suffer problems with sleep and mood.

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