As the sun heads south, nights are longer than days, and the temps settle to the colder side of freezing, sleep becomes irresistible. When the darkness of 5pm rolls around, it feels like bedtime, and I long to be a bear so I can hibernate.
The thing is, we humans simply don't have what it takes to hibernate. Recent research shows hibernation to be more complex than simply taking a nap, and that there are some promising implications for human health.
Toward summer’s end and all autumn long, bears consume roughly 20,000 calories a day to attain the necessary fat to get through their extended winter nap. In Colorado, black bears (which can be cinnamon, brown or even blonde - black is the species name) head to their dens sometime in November. Part of that hibernation signal has to do with their food being unavailable: their natural diet consists mainly of grasses, berries, fruits, nuts and plants, with insects and scavenged carcasses filling in the rest.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife: Living with Wildlife - Bears (scroll down for “Black Bears at a Glance info and resources)
During hibernation from approximately November to mid-March, bears do not eat or drink, and their heart and breathing rate slow to about 75% of normal. Unique to hibernating animals, their body temperature does not drop very much.
We humans were not made to hibernate. Two obvious problems for us taking a months-long snooze: bone loss and brain dysfunction. Interestingly, scientists have found that bears turn off the genes associated with bone loss during hibernation. Regarding brain function, there are tau proteins that cause tangles in the brains of humans with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Hibernating bears (and squirrels) also accumulate tau proteins in their brains. When they come out of hibernation though, the tau proteins clear, and their brain function is up and running as they emerge into spring. The implications for humans regarding both brain function and bone loss are encouraging, and research continues.
Smithsonian Magazine Article: Why Amazing Discoveries About Bear Hibernation May Help Improve Human Health
So how’s a non-hibernating human to get through winter? With, among other things, a lot of light. Anything from a light therapy lamp to an alarm that mimics the sun rising, to getting outside first thing - the important part is to set circadian rhythms by exposure to light. Since darkness encourages the body’s production of melatonin, getting out for midday or afternoon walks can be beneficial for afternoon fatigue. Sticking with a sleep routine, eating nutritious foods, drinking plenty of water and cutting screen time at least an hour before bed are all suggestions we’ve heard before, but worth repeating. Getting solid shut-eye, and bolstering your health with good choices 80% of the time will set you (and me) up for enjoying winter instead of slogging through it.
New York Times Article: How Not to Feel Dead Tired This Winter
Jacqueline Denny, ACC, CHPC, LMT