Hibernation, Sleep, and the Arctic Winter

The last blog post discussed how the Arctic winter creates the perfect circumstances for polar bears to repair their metabolic machinery. Read it before you read this blog post.

To understand how polar bears fall apart each year, only to put themselves back together again while they sleep, you have to understand hibernation. Debate in fact continues as to whether or not polar bears are “true” hibernators, for reasons that are academic. Polar bears go to sleep for weeks, or even months, at a time in the darkness of the Arctic winter. Pregnant females fast during the winter for longer than any other mammal on earth.

Hibernation refers to a period of rest that is remarkably similar to sleep. When bears hibernate, they do not wake up feeling “hungry.” They do not feel hungry before resting either. They keep warm by burning fat for heat in the mitochondria of their brown fat. They also produce all of the water that they need with this process. During hibernation, bears do not urinate, defecate, or eat. They sleep. Sleep, for humans, is precisely the same, or at least, it is supposed to be the same. Many of the first signs of disease have to do with disturbances of sleep. Healthy children exemplify “healthy” sleep. They do not wake up in the middle of the night hungry, although they may be voracious eaters during the day. Eating at night is one of the fastest ways to become fat, diabetic, and generally unhealthy. They do not wake up to urinate, or to drink water. Wetting the bed is often a sign of neurological problems in children, as it is in adults (sales of adult diapers are rising at alarming rates). The elderly and the infirm often struggle to sleep, wake up multiple times a night to urinate, drink water, or even eat. They tell you they “have to eat” or “are always thirsty.”

Imagine sleeping for months, producing all the water, heat, and energy you needed by burning fat. That is what polar bears do. Believe it or not, the same machinery they use to do this is present inside each and every one of us, although the “wiring” is a little different. I might tell you to “live like a polar bear,” but what I mean is to, as Einstein said, “look deep into nature, to understand everything better.” You can’t live like a polar bear, but you can use your metabolic machinery the way that they do to create good health and vitality.

The Arctic winter activates this metabolic machinery, signaling the polar bear when to den and when to awake. These environmental signals determine what the polar bear does, just as they determine what you do. The idea that “calories” or “carbohydrates” are addictive is, at best, one side of the story. Calories and carbohydrates are abundant only when light is strong. Our ancestors knew this, and only colonized cold environments when they had developed the means to preserve and store food. It is estimated that our ancestors in Northern Europe may have eaten as little as a cup of plant food each year during the coldest years of earth’s history. They survived on pure animal fat, rendered from animals they often slaughtered en mass in warmer times.

We still have this metabolic machinery, but we are sending it signals of endless abundance. Every day is warm, bright, and our bodies respond by craving food, packing away fat, and becoming “insulin resistant” (diabetic), which is exactly what our bodies should do under those circumstances to survive coming cold weather or even ice ages.

Polar bears keep their skin in the game. They do not have modern technology to divorce themselves from nature, and so they do not suffer from modern diseases. Their ills are the same as those they faced when our ancestors were busy sketching mammoths on the walls of caves in Northern Europe.

There are two components to the Arctic winter that we can use to recapture our health in modern times.

The two keys to the Arctic winter are darkness and cold.

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