How does hibernation work?

In the cold, dark season, many people suffer from fatigue, listlessness and sleep disorders. But why don't people actually hibernate? Here you can find out how the famous hibernation actually works and what we can do even when awake to get through the cold days well-rested and motivated.

Table of contents

  1. Winter & our sleep
  2. Why do animals hibernate?
  3. How hibernation works
  4. Can humans hibernate?
  5. Better sleep in winter
  6. Conclusion

Winter & our sleep

Gloomy weather, cold winds and frosty snowfall not only affect the mind, but usually make one thing above all: tired! Our sleep behavior depends on a wide variety of internal and external factors. So it is quite natural that our need for sleep also varies at different times of the year and that we generally need a little more sleep in winter - because there is a lack of daylight in particular, which has a significant influence on our internal clock. Our body then produces fewer happiness hormones and secretes more melatonin, which leads to the well-known daytime fatigue and promotes the development of the famous winter depression. The lack of daylight, cold temperatures and little exercise disturb our sleep-wake rhythm and stand in the way of healthy, restful sleep.

Like humans, animals have an internal clock that regulates their sleep-wake rhythm. For many wild animals, hibernation is an effective way to brave the challenges of the cold season and survive the dark days of winter unscathed, despite low temperatures and food shortages. Of course, we humans do not depend on this, but scientists assume that humans are also at least hereditarily predisposed to be able to hibernate. But what exactly happens during hibernation?

Why do animals hibernate?

When we are asleep, we consume less energy than when we are awake. Some animals take advantage of this to overcome the exhausting cold and hunger phases until enough food is available again. Under the influence of increasingly cold temperatures and low food availability, hibernation is therefore particularly useful for ensuring survival. With the help of hibernation, animals can react more flexibly to the extreme external conditions and reduce their energy requirements in order to need less food and get through the cold days by using up previously stored fat reserves.

Various researches prove that in "hibernators" the chromosomes in the genes are better protected, so hibernation is actually a very effective means of species preservation. It also not only prevents death from cold or starvation, but also protects against predators.

How hibernation works

Strictly speaking, hibernation is not a real sleep at all, but a sleep-like state. It resembles rest or rigidity and can have different triggers, such as the increasingly colder temperatures, changes in daylight or a certain body fat limit. In winter, the organism of the affected animals then switches to the stage known by experts as "torpor." The body's metabolism is shut down by up to 90%, breathing and heart rate slow down, and the body temperature drops to a few degrees above zero. Scientific studies also show that an animal's brain waves also change during hibernation, and especially the brain waves typical of night sleep are absent. It could also be proven that during hibernation, the sleep phases known to us are not passed through and neither non-REM nor REM sleep can be detected.

Feldmaus erwacht aus dem Winterschlaf und sitzt im Schnee

Contrary to popular belief, an animal's hibernation is also repeatedly interrupted by periods of wakefulness. The central nervous system monitors bodily functions during the hibernation state and wakes the animal, for example, if the body temperature drops too much. Unlike awakening from normal night sleep, however, wakeful periods last longer and are mainly used for foraging and reproduction. Whether a creature spends several months or only a few hours in torpor varies from species to species.

Can humans hibernate?

Some experts suggest that we humans also hibernated a long time ago and would be genetically quite capable of falling into a Torpor-like state. Of course, we don't have to rely on that today, because we don't have to protect ourselves from a food shortage or the freezing temperatures to survive the cold season. Nevertheless, we humans should also respond to the external conditions in winter and help our bodies to function optimally despite increased fatigue and an increased need for sleep.

Sleep better in winter

Junge Frau am Morgen in der Sonne im Bett

In order to stay healthy and productive during the day, so that a strong immune system can protect us from numerous pathogens and our psyche does not suffer, sufficient relaxation and restful sleep are very important. In addition to the right sleep equipment and good sleep hygiene, an individual morning routine can also support your sleep. You can find detailed info and tips for sleep in winter here. The most important at a glance:

➥ Consume plenty of daylight & avoid artificial light sources
Light is an important clock for the inner clock and helps regulate hormone balance. So you support a balanced mood, a healthy sleep-wake rhythm and a restful sleep.

➥ Get enough exercise and stay active
Exercise keeps the circulation going, improves the metabolism and has a positive effect on health and sleep.

Conclusion

  • In winter, the natural need for sleep increases because a lack of daylight, cold temperatures and little exercise upset the sleep-wake rhythm.
  • Hibernation is an effective way to overcome cold and food shortages and survive the winter.
  • Today, we humans no longer need to hibernate, but we should make sure we get enough sleep, especially in winter, to stay healthy and productive.

Best regards and see you soon!

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