Did Our Ancestors Hibernate During the Winter? Should We?

Short answer? No.

Although when the days get shorter, the air outside bites the skin, and outdoor activities require forethought and preparation… 

We tend to get hungrier, sleepier, and grumpier. Sounds like we’re preparing to hibernate, doesn’t it? 

Hibernation is a state of minimal movement and low metabolic activity characterized by low-body temperature, slow breathing, slow heart rate, and low intensity. 

We’re reminded constantly how important it is to keep our energy levels up during the winter – whether to keep from gaining winter weight, or to keep ourselves from slipping further from our goals.

The temptation to hibernate like a dormouse can be powerful – and after all, it seems only natural.

We’re endotherms (or warm-blooded animals) too!

Unfortunately, most studies show that hibernating isn’t effective, or necessary, for humans. 

Why Didn’t We Hibernate Historically?

Believe it or not, humans have been tropical creatures for most of their time on Earth. The migration to colder climes is relatively recent. 

Hibernation existed as part of an animal’s defense against the cold. It was harder to summon the energy to heat the body when food was more scarce and protection against the cold in shorter supply. 

Which brings us to the main reason humans don’t hibernate…

We figured out how to live through the winter.

We discovered fire, invented agriculture, built silos, designed shelters that kept out the cold, figured out how to preserve meat, and all kinds of other innovations that allowed us to function through the winter just like we function through the rest of the seasons.

Human intelligence prevented us from developing the metabolic adaptations necessary for making hibernation a viable option.

While that may come as a disappointment to some, lower energy in the colder months is absolutely scientifically proven. Whether you’ve got seasonal depression or you just find yourself less motivated to perform, you’re not alone. 

Darkness triggers the body to produce more melatonin, a hormone produced by the pineal gland that regulates our sleep. When there’s less daylight, you literally feel fatigued.

Should We Lean Into Fatigue or Fight it?

That all depends on your goals.

There’s nothing wrong with living by the circadian rhythms of the Earth. You could slow down your activity and conserve energy to match the stillness of the cold winter months.

You could focus on internal improvements – reading more, expanding indoor hobbies, developing sedentary habits like writing or playing music. 

There’s no right way to be a human being, except to listen to your body. If you want to use the winter months as a chance to reflect internally and experience a softer, more quiet environment, there’s nothing that says you shouldn’t. 

What’s important is that you don’t use the winter as a respite from responsibilities and personal advancement.

Finding Energy in a Winter Wasteland

Should you choose to beat back against winter fatigue, you’ve got options. It’ll take determination, because if you live anywhere that gets cold and dark during the winter months, you’re fighting against nature. 

The world around you isn’t providing you with the energy you need like it does throughout the rest of the year.

Here are several foolproof ways to increase your energy during the winter to help you maintain the lifestyle you’ve accustomed yourself to:

  1. Expose yourself to sunlight: Difficult when you work in an office, but twice as important. Make sure you get outside during the daylight hours and soak up all the Vitamin D you can – conversely, you can take Vitamin D supplements!
  2. Sleep the same as you did in the summertime: Even though you feel more tired, you don’t actually require more sleep in the winter time. Try not to oversleep, but pay special attention to ensure you’re getting a full seven-eight hours.
  3. Exercise, even if it’s not much: A study from the University of Georgia found that in adults who were largely sedentary, just twenty minutes per day of low-to-moderate exercise increased energy reserves. That can mean yoga, pilates, ice-skating, or anything else that gets your heart rate.
  4. Eat well: Focus on vegetables. It can be tempting to carbo-load when you’re cold and hungry because your body is begging for energy. But fruits and vegetables will provide you with a clean, crisp energy that keeps all of your body’s systems functioning optimally to fight off diseases and keep the digestive system running smoothly. 

The reality is that humans neither can nor should hibernate. We can’t sleep the winter away.

But we can adjust some of our behaviors to keep ourselves and our bodies chugging along when it’s cold outside, without being too hard on ourselves for naturally wanting to do less.

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.