Who hasn’t fantasized about the possibility of copying the bears for a few months, and digging down deep into our retreats and sleeping away the cold, dark, wet months?
Human hibernation is still largely in the realm of science fiction. That doesn’t mean it’s not a legitimate question however; as science fiction fans have long known, plenty of real world applications have emerged from the genre’s fertile imagination.
We're Not Quite Like Bears
A handful of exploratory studies in recent years, including one funded by NASA, have shown that humans don’t lack the organs or molecular components required for hibernation and used by hibernating mammals. The barriers are more to do with how we regulate bodily temperature and store food.
Our bodies consume calories in order to maintain a high metabolic rate and keep our temperature high. Hibernating mammals, on the other hand, consume almost no food while hibernating and as a result descend into a low metabolic state called torpor – a process that we would probably have to replicate using technological interventions.
Science Fiction, or Fact?
The progress being made in this area isn’t just part of an effort to shoot humans across vast interplanetary distances. There are more immediate medical scenarios that would benefit from being able to shut down key bodily functions while emergency surgery is performed, for example.
So while there’s hope that our ingenuity will bring the possibility of human hibernation within reach, it’s probably not going to happen in time to escape the encroaching northern hemisphere winter.
What’s possibly more reassuring, is that our bodies do seem to naturally change and respond to the seasons. Recent research has discovered that our bodies go through two cycles each year – two seasons, essentially – where various biological markers such as antipathogen production, blood pressure and gene activity – particularly the sleep regulator PER1 – will peak and trough in late spring and late autumn.
Don't Fight It – Roll With It
What does this mean for our wellbeing? Changes to our health across the year may be seasonally driven. People, especially anyone in more northerly latitudes, report significant swings in energy driven by the huge variance in the amount of daylight.
Knowing this should help us inform and orient our choices around our health and wellbeing. If we’re feeling unproductive, or antisocial, or simply like nothing is going our way, then it’s okay to indulge our urge to hibernate and find a quiet place to be alone (perhaps with a Sensate for company!).
Andrew Huberman interviews Dr. Samer Hattar on the effects of light and seasonality on our sleep energy and mood, including discussion of circadian and circannual rhythms.
“The environment is a key factor in human health, and seasonal changes in particular have been associated with human conditions and diseases,” the authors wrote.
The Atlantic goes into a bit more depth around the physiological and technical implication of human hibernation. Spoiler; they also don’t think it’s going to be possible any time soon.
Key takeaway: hibernation isn’t sleep; you wouldn’t wake up in April feeling restored, just very very hungry.