A Long Winter’s Nap: How Hibernation Helps You

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Curling up under the covers restores our bodies in winter.

In the depths of winter, do you find yourself wanting to sleep more, eat more and curl up by the fire? We often behave as if seasonal changes are irrelevant to a modern lifestyle. After all, in many ways, civilization is all about overcoming nature. But our bodies are evolutionarily old and remember how weather once dictated behavior. In winter, we hunkered around a fire, repairing tools and telling tales that wove our culture. We packed our bodies close and slept long.

Now we act as if it’s always summer, demanding consistently high productivity at work and at home. But our bodies require cycles of activity and rest–daily, annually. When days are long, our metabolisms and energy levels amp up.  In winter, we produce hormones that make us sleepy, giving us time to restore body, mind and soul.

And there’s nothing wrong with that cycle–except that we work against it, forcing ourselves to operate at summer levels even in winter. No wonder so many people feel depressed at this time of year!

How SAD is that?

You’ve probably heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. You might even suffer from it–as many as half a million U.S. citizens do, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. The fact that most clinicians address the issue via technology (daily exposure to high-intensity electric light) and/or medication provides an interesting perspective on our time. But some have noted that SAD’s symptoms have more in common with hibernation than with clinical depression.

Could SAD be a result of modern living’s demand to move at top speed all day, every day–and mostly indoors, disconnected from the sun’s cycles? Could we give in to a bit of hibernation?

Oh, to hibernate!

Hibernation is a survival strategy some animals use to get through foodless winters. Though humans don’t hibernate, some cultures have come close.

In 1900, the British Medical Association published a description of winters among Russian peasants. For centuries, they survived scant winter food by engaging in lotska–sleeping the whole season away. “At the first fall of snow the whole family gathers round the stove, lies down, ceases to wrestle with the problems of human existence and quietly goes to sleep.”

The peasants woke daily to eat some bread and drink some water and then dropped off again, taking turns keeping the fire going. After six months, “the family wakes up, shakes itself, goes out to see if the grass is growing, and by-and-by sets to work at summer tasks,” the article states.

In a 2007 New York Times editorial, historian Graham Robb similarly described rural 19th-century France:

Economists and bureaucrats who ventured out into the countryside after the Revolution were horrified to find that the work force disappeared between fall and spring…Villages and even small towns were silent, with barely a column of smoke to reveal a human presence.  As soon as the weather turned cold, people all over France shut themselves away and practiced the forgotten art of doing nothing at all for months on end.

Dreaming of a better world

What if we indulged our inclination to slow down in winter? We’d sleep more and demand less from ourselves.  We’d be more inward and reflective.  I once met an artist who had mastered this. Perusing her work, I asked how she stayed creative as a painter, writer, weaver and sculptor. Her answer:

She changes media each season. In summer she’s out on her deck chiseling a sculpture. In fall, she is reflective and poetic. In winter, she works with warm fiber at her loom. And as spring beckons her outdoors, she sets up her easel in the meadow. Should our lives be any less a work of seasonal art? 

Carol Venolia is an eco-architect and co-author of Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House (Lark Books, 2006).  She teaches in the Sustainable Communities program at Dominican University of California. Chat with her atcvenolia@naturalhomemagazine.com.

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