Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Human hibernation: going back to bed

It should come as no surprise to you that slowing down in the winter isn't a bad thing. It's dark, cold and totally conducive for hanging around in bed, cuddled up under a blanket with not much to do. Here in the Pacific NW where it gets dark by 4:00pm, there is a high incidence of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), where the early darkness is coupled with low, dark clouds that make the area even more dreary than, say, somewhere in Montana at the same latitude. Around here, going to bed and waking up with the sun means a good 16 hours sleep a night.

I ran across an article the other day describing the history of some human populations essentially false hibernating during the winter, mostly to conserve not only fuel energy, but human energy. People slept together most of the day, waking only briefly to eat a little hard bread, drink some water and carry out basic body functions.

In 19th century France:
Economists and bureaucrats who ventured out into the countryside after the Revolution were horrified to find that the work force disappeared between fall and spring. The fields were deserted from Flanders to Provence. Villages and even small towns were silent, with barely a column of smoke to reveal a human presence. As soon as the weather turned cold, people all over France shut themselves away and practiced the forgotten art of doing nothing at all for months on end.

In the mountains, the tradition of seasonal sloth was ancient and pervasive. "Seven months of winter, five months of hell," they said in the Alps. When the "hell" of unremitting toil was over, the human beings settled in with their cows and pigs. They lowered their metabolic rate to prevent hunger from exhausting supplies. If someone died during the seven months of winter, the corpse was stored on the roof under a blanket of snow until spring thawed the ground, allowing a grave to be dug and a priest to reach the village.

The same mass dormancy was practiced in other chilly parts. In 1900, The British Medical Journal reported that peasants of the Pskov region in northwestern Russia "adopt the economical expedient" of spending one-half of the year in sleep: "At the first fall of snow the whole family gathers round the stove, lies down, ceases to wrestle with the problems of human existence, and quietly goes to sleep. Once a day every one wakes up to eat a piece of hard bread. ... The members of the family take it in turn to watch and keep the fire alight. After six months of this reposeful existence the family wakes up, shakes itself" and "goes out to see if the grass is growing."

Even in more temperate areas of France, the same behavior was seen:
In Burgundy, after the wine harvest, the workers burned the vine stocks, repaired their tools and left the land to the wolves. A civil servant who investigated the region’s economic activity in 1844 found that he was almost the only living presence in the landscape: "These vigorous men will now spend their days in bed, packing their bodies tightly together in order to stay warm and to eat less food. They weaken themselves deliberately."

After the Revolution, government officials complained that farmers were "abandoning themselves to dumb idleness," instead of undertaking "some peaceful and sedentary industry." Income acted only as a deterrent. The people of Beaucaire on the Rhône made enough money at their summer fair to spend the rest of the year "smoking, playing cards, hunting and sleeping."

Do humans have the capability to hibernate? Sadly, no:
It would appear that while humans have some of the tools for hibernation, we have not evolved them to be used for long periods of time because we have not been required to. Perhaps if we were at the mercy of the elements, we would have evolved to be able to hibernate, to be able to lower our body temperatures and severely reduce the amount of energy we use and where such energy comes from.

It seems, however, unlikely that we will ever have the need to hibernate in the future, considering our wealth of indoor heating systems and warehouses full of winter coats. For now we’ll have to settle for bundling up, hunkering down, and waiting out the winter fully conscious, and, sadly, awake.

So, what better way to spend the winter to save energy, but to get some well deserved (and probably needed) extra sleep? Do you find that you sleep a lot more during the winter? I know I definitely can easily squeeze in a short nap pretty much every afternoon if I have time for it.


Gabriel Withington said...

Great article.

It's interesting to be reminded of the historical response to seasonal restraints. This summer I travelled up and down the east coast and the common theme was that regardless of what the weather was like outside, everyone always had an excuse to avoid it. My conclusion is that we humans are obsessed with being able to control our environments and any loss of that is a personal insult.

Glenda said...


I don't tend to sleep more during the winter.

I have noticed that I function better if I follow my body's night-owl tendencies. I wake up rested with my brain ready to go, whereas all the years I was in school and then when I worked hours that required me to fight those night-owl tendencies I constantly felt tired and could have napped pretty much every day. I know some people love the mornings, but I'm the opposite -- I love nighttime. I've always figured I would not be a good candidate for farm life if it required me to get up at the crack of dawn (or before).

Luschka said...

I am in the UK and our winters are a lot like yours. I wouldn't say we sleep more, but we certainly stay indoors more! But then we are actually from South Africa, and are used to much higher temperatures!

Maria said...

Human's a beautiful thought....

Farmer's Daughter said...

I always just thought I stayed up later in the summer because the days were longer and there's more to do, plus I'm not working so I can stay up later.

But maybe it's the other way around?

Anonymous said...

I would venture to guess that if trends in England are any indicator, then sleeping most of the day or at least staying in bed will become common, at least among the unemployed and retired. There is a story at TAE which relates that pensioners are purchasing used books to burn in their coal and wood stoves because they can't afford fuel. Books are cheap and burn for a long time.

We haven't used heat in our home for two years now; it definitely is harder to get out of bed and start moving when it's 55 outside the warm covers. Especially at 450 am, when it's still full dark, which is when I have to get up to go to work.


Elisabeth said...

I do sleep more during the winter. Out here in west Texas, spring, summer, and fall are so often lovely that we tend to party outdoors every evening. Only in the cold desert Winters do we finally head indoors. I have found myself frequently in bed by 9:30 or 10:30 and sleeping until 7:30 or 8. And generally all I want to do during the day is get under a blanked, plant my dog on my feet, and take a nap.

Laura_in_MT said...

No wonder people were shorter and smaller back then! A combo of wintertime malnutrition and lack of physical activity would tend to have a stunting effect on health status. Such a pseudo-hibernation probably wouldn't be great for emotional health either. Still, I like the idea of cuddling up with a big pile of books, and the dog and cats for company and warmth. Maybe storytelling helped pass the time for those who weren't literate.

To me the most striking lines in the NY Times article you reference are "Until the 20th century, few people needed money. Apart from salt and iron, everything could be paid for in kind." Maybe money will again become less important if and when circumstances propel us back to a simpler way of life.

EB said...

I agree with the previous poster -

There's a difference between sleeping to restore energy and sleeping as a response to semi-starvation.

The historical incidents described here are sleeping as a response to semi-starvation. The villagers were not recuperating lost energies, but trying not to starve and they are certainly not a model to strive for.

The pensioners described earlier in the comments may be facing similar issues - when you are not warm enough and eating little, of course you are going to stay in bed as much as possible - you don't have energy to do anything else.

While CC;s information was interesting, something has been bothering me lately-
I do think that the environmental movement needs to be very careful when looking at tribal lifestyles or earlier historical periods when attempting to find better and more ecologically sound medical and lifestyle models.

Sometimes I see this lifestyle romanticized (not that it is here) when in reality life was often harsh, individual become malnourished during certain seasons, women often die during childbirth (one of the biggest killer of women in earlier eras), and health was sometimes very poor.

I don't see it on this blog, but I've seen other exhortations to try to go as medicine free as you can or to move to herbal medications whose side effects are not know (herbs are drugs too, we just often don't know the side effects, interaction effects, or at what dose they are toxic) or to things like ayurvedic medicine. Again, I'm the first to say we overuse our medical system, but I just worry that often these lifestyles and medicines are over romanticized.

Sorry to preach, just something I'm worrying about lately.

FernWise said...


Okay, winter I have an afternoon nap to conserve energy.

Summer I have an afternoon nap so I don't get heatstroke.

Spring and fall I have an afternoon nap because .... I just like afternoon naps.

kidk4m said...

If it weren't for the fact that I have hungry horses waiting on me to get them breakfast...I'd be sleeping in too this winter! But as it is, I'm up at 5:15am to get my chores done before heading to the barn at 6:30am.

Laura said...

@ EB, interesting thoughts. I would say that we are not necessicarily healthier now than we were "then". (obesity, being sedentary, malnutrition from eating food that is super processed or Frankensteined) Also, we take drugs that are unresearched and untested and far newer than traditional herbal remedies all the time. They are just sanctioned by the FDA. Is one safer or healthier than the other? I'm a fan of low-tech solutions so I am leaning more and more toward lifestyles proven in the past. Each have their risks sure. In our current lifestyle risks seem to be paid in one lump sum, so for a long time it looks like there is no risk at all. In more traditional lifestyles, risk is paid in small installments all the time. From the outside, this makes it look more risky but really it might not be.

Laura said...

p.s. Sleep? Bring it on! :) I'm a 10 hour a night kind of girl.