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The hibernation response and winter depression.

The Hibernation Response and Winter Depression

The subject is hibernation. Bears hibernate, so do millions of other creatures, including thousands of different insect species. It is nature's method of preparing inhabitants of cold areas for the winter months. By settling into a state of inactivity, energy is preserved and body fat utilized slowly.

Since humans are part of nature, why have we been excluded? Or have we missed the cues while becoming adjusted to a society that turns night into day? Are we fighting a losing battle because the "unnatural response" has brought us chronic fatigue, respiratory diseases, and frequent loss of interest in work and sex?

A new book, The Hibernation Response, reminds us that the seasonal disorder affects at least twenty-five percent of the earth's population, especially those living in northern climes where light and sunshine are diminished throughout the winter. The consequence, the authors contend, is winter depression and many attendant discomforts.

Peter Whybrow is a psychiatrist, and Robert Bahr is a science writer. Together they have produced a work that could become a hallmark in understanding another aspect of weather sensitivity. (See Stephen Rosen's book, Weathering, for a comprehensive study of climate's effect upon the world population. Details on page 16.)

Our primitive ancestors, they note, survived by retreating to caves or burrows. They huddled together to conserve body heat while permitting their metabolism to drop to almost a standstill. Drawing stingily upon ample supplies of body fat, they slept the bad times away.

They also write that "...in such fashion, many species of the cold and temperate regions, unsuited for migration, incapable of finding food beneath the ice and snow, managed to survive. Their mode of entering the hibernating state, its depth, the length of time between arousals, all varied -- not only between species but also among subgroups of species and even individuals within subgroups. Swallows, for example, have been known to hibernate all winter; the hummingbird for fewer than twelve hours. There are animals that pass into hibernation within minutes, and others require weeks." Only humans seem to have lost their commanding instinct to hiberbate. For that loss, the authors say, a heavy toll is suffered. We become "walking hibernators."

How does darkness trigger the hibernation response in humans? Whybrow and Bahr are convinced that a hormone called melatonin is responsible. The biochemical reaction is explained: "All mammals, along with snakes and lizards, possess what was once called a `third eye.'" In the lizard the pineal gland actually resembles an eye protruding from the center of the forehead. And like an eye, it includes a miniature cornea, lens, and retina. One of the functions is to register the amount of darkness to which the reptile is exposed. In response to the darkness, it secretes melatonin.

"Humans also possess a pineal gland. Unlike the lizard's pineal, the human gland is buried under a thick skull and senses the darkness through light receptors in the eyes.

"In some creatures the pineal gland begins producing melatonin at dusk and keeps on until the onset of light. In others, including humans, melatonin levels in the blood usually increase after an hour or more of darkness -- to five times that of daytime levels.

The hormone is a tranquilizer. It is the substance that nature releases to prepare us for nightly sleep. Reaction time slows; fatigue sets in. Individuals who deprive themselves of light and enclose themselves in darkened rooms are constantly releasing melatonin into their bodies, thereby creating the equivalent of "preparing for sleep." Constant overflow of the hormone can create a vulnerability to fatigue and depression.

Every autumn millions of people living in temperature and cold climates undergo psychological and physiological changes. During spring and summer they spend more time outdoors, and are exposed to light. The same people can become moody and depressed as the days become shorter. The time spent in bed is the same; but winter brings on weariness and fatigue not related to either more work or a change in circumstances. Unprepared for winter living and unable to hibernate because of society's demands, modern man pays a heavy price for existing in "time out of joint."

Until the 1980's," Whybrow and Bahr say, "most psychiatrists would have diagnosed such people as depressives. But they do not suffer insomnia as most depressives do. The seasonally depressed person will sleep seventeen percent more during winter months than during the rest of the year. While typical depressives lose their appetities, seasonal depressives gain ten to fifteen pounds every fall and winter."

To combat winter fatigue and the innate need to hibernate, the writers of The Hibernation Response recommend "making your own sunshine." They are not advocating suntan lamps, devices that can be dangerous. Their suggestion is to let more light into the environment. Keep rooms flooded with light even if it is artificial.

One of their recommendation is installing fixtures that can accommodate the new daylight fluorescent bulbs, which are supposed to give the equivalent of natural daylight.

With the widespread publicity about a link between sunshine and cancer, some people have taken the reports more seriously than necessary. They avoid all light as much as possible. The consequence is usually a gloomy depressed individual.

Because we are among the first generation in human history to live most of our lives in comparative darkness, the alternative calls for creating an environment both at work and at home that permits bright lighting throughout all dark days. Melatonin production, therefore, would be limited to nightfall.

Having made their case for light therapy, the authors urge a nutritional regimen that will fortify people against physical and psychological stress.

The diet cautions against the use of refined carbohydrates such as sugar and white flour, and emphasizes the need for a wide range of nutritional supplements including vitamins A,B,C, beta carotene (vitamin A) and the major minerals such as zinc, calcium and magnesium.

Foods rich in those nutrients are encouraged, while an overemphasis on protein is cautioned against.

Exercise and activity are an important part of the Antihibernation Diet (their name for the program.)

The Hibernation Response is an important book. It is a major contribution to solving the mystery of pervasive "winter blues." By implicating the hormone melatonin and defining the need for "light therapy," it becomes a work that is an enlightening experience for everyone.
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Nutrition Health Review
Date:Jan 1, 1989
Words:1057
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