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How to Bear the Long Winter Without Going into Hibernation

It’s cold, it’s gray, it’s dark more than it’s light. 


The fun of family gatherings is behind you. You’re feeling like you’ve had enough food through the festive season that you should be able to go without eating for the rest of the winter. 


You’re so tired. Everything makes you feel like a cranky bear. The air makes your face hurt. You so don’t want to go anywhere or do anything. Sound about right?   


It turns out you feel this way because you are going against ingrained human nature to gear down, curl up, and hibernate for the rest of the winter. 


The Argument for the Long Winter Nap 


You will undoubtably find articles stating it is NOT in our genetic makeup to hibernate. Some scientists believe this is because of the warm climate where our ancient ancestors started out. 


However, more recent findings in Sima de los Huesos, Spain may be changing thinking on this subject. Human fossils were found at the site that showed damage consistent with hibernation


Even though life seems to have begun in warmer climates, approximately 400,000 years ago, our predecessors were challenged by extreme cold and lack of food. These are the two main ingredients mammals need to trigger the onset of hibernation. 


Another clue to our potential of being hibernators involves our layer of adipose tissue, the nice way of saying fat. A study at the University of Alberta noted our bodies store more fat when we have less daylight.  


It seems the link to this phenomenon is the amount of skin that is exposed to sunlight and for how long. When it gets cold and dark, we wear more cloths and spend more time inside. The more we do that, the bigger out fat cells become, providing us with energy stores to get through the winter. 


A final point for pro-hibernation is a sleep study performed at St. Hedwig Hospital, Berlin. The study showed REM sleep was 30 minutes longer in winter than in summer.  


This doesn’t sound like a big deal until you understand that REM sleep is linked to our circadian clock (sleep and wake schedule), which is governed by hours of daylight. 



Then Why Aren’t We Hibernating? 


There are a few reasons that we don’t hibernate. 


First, we have plentiful resources. No matter how cold it gets, we have more than enough food, and it’s easy to go to the local grocery store to restock. 


Second, we have too much light. Many of us function in an urban environment where we have sources of light around us constantly:  streetlights, night lights, television, and device screens. It is never completely dark. 


Third, we are just too busy. We have jobs, tasks, and activities that keep us going to all hours every day and night. We are constantly burning internal fuel, so we couldn’t possibly survive hibernation. 


What Do We Do if We Can’t Hibernate? 


We now know that we can’t and won’t go into hibernation for the winter. We either never had or have lost the ability to hibernate.   


The next best thing, then, is rest. Here are three ways to get the rest your body and brain are craving until the end of the winter months. 


Sleep:   Build more time for sleep into your schedule. There are a couple of ways that you can do that. 


The afternoon nap is my personal favorite. I find having lunch first to be helpful. Our brains find it easier to get into relax mode after a meal. That’s because the meal triggers production of serotonin.


Then, find your cozy place and set an alarm. You don’t want to sleep more than 20 minutes to avoid feeling like a slug for the rest of the afternoon. 


That 20-minute nap will leave you feeling more alert and capable of getting your afternoon or evening to-do list done. 


The second way to get more sleep is, and I know you don’t want to hear it, go to bed earlier. 


Your circadian clock actually wants “lights out” earlier during the winter. With less hours of sunlight, you produce more melatonin (sleep hormone), and you produce it sooner in your day than in the summer.   


Also, start shutting down electronics and dimming lights a couple of hours before bedtime. This way your body can produce plenty of melatonin for some sound sleep when you’re head hits the pillow. 


Comfort Foods:  Your body craves heavier foods in winter. It is one of those throwbacks to our ancient genetics that we still haven’t evolved from. 


Your body is wired to fill up on high caloric foods to stave off the danger of starvation when the weather and reduced daylight signals that food could become less available. 


Now, let’s be specific here. We’re not talking about the bagged or plastic-wrapped snack foods that are so easy to reach for and overindulge in. What we’re talking about is nutrient dense foods that make your brain AND body feel good. 


This is where recipes for soups, stews, and casseroles are beneficial. Using seasonal produce and warming herbs and spices will go a long way to making you feel satiated without going overboard. 


Food & Wine has a list of recipes that will warm you up and keep your palate from craving foods that you may regret come the Spring thaw. Click on 31 Hearty Recipes and make the rest of your winter meals a pleasure to both cook and eat. 


Restful Activities:    Everything else rests during the cold, short days of winter. Everything except humans. We are functioning counter to a season that was made for chilling out. 


You don’t have to curl up in a hibernation den, shunning all activity. You’re not a bear. But you don’t have to be going at perpetual supersonic speed, either. 


Winter is a perfect time for indoor activities. Remember that book you bought last summer and never opened? It’s a good time to read it now. 


Remember family game nights? Bust out the board games and reconnect with your loved ones. 


How about those crafting projects you keep pinning on Pinterest? You have all winter to work on them. 


Do those things that you were too busy in the warmer months to do. Need some more ideas for restful winter activities? Click on Everyday Thrifty. They’ve got 20 different ideas you can put to good use. 


We, as humans, may not be able to hibernate until that crazy groundhog gets his act together. We can, however, support our physiological need for a restful winter season.   


Get the sleep you need. Eat hearty and healthy foods.   Catch up on activities that are best enjoyed in your cozy winter den. You’ll be rested and ready to play in the sunshine again come Spring. 

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