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Take a Long Winter’s Nap

Why You Need More Sleep In Winter

Do you find it hard to leave the warm covers in winter time? Do you yearn to take curl up and take naps?

If you answered yes, it may be because we have more in common with bears, bats, groundhogs and other hibernating animals than we think. Animals hibernate to conserve energy and avoid having to scrounge to find food in bad weather. While humans can work long hours all year long, we still seem to have an inner clock attuned to the seasons.

According to an article published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in 2000, the Russian peasants in the Pskov government practiced something akin to hibernation in the winter. With food scarce during winter, they adopted the economical alternative of spending it virtually asleep.

“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,” write the authors. “Once a day every one wakes up to eat a piece of hard bread, of which an amount sufficient to last six months has providently been baked in the previous autumn. When the bread has been washed down with a draught of water, everyone goes to sleep again.” Family members take turns keeping the fire going. “After six months of this reposeful existence the family wakes up, shakes itself, goes out to see if the grass is growing, and by-and-by sets to work at summer tasks.”

The authors express their envy that these people can spend half a year removed from the worry and care suffered by their non-hibernating brethren. Of course, that’s not a realistic existence for even those of us who are retired, and certainly not for those of us caregiving for others. But there is information we can take away from their lifestyle.

How To “Hibernate”

When asked if it is normal for humans to require more sleep when days are short, Joseph Feuerstein, MD, Director of Integrative Medicine at Stamford Hospital in Connecticut, replied, “I believe as mammals we have a tendency to hibernate in winter.”

In fact, Dr. Feuerstein considers sleep such a vital human function that he does not recommend the use of alarm clocks. “The point is to wake up refreshed, so an alarm clock is artificially interrupting your sleep. If you don’t sleep enough you develop a sleep deficit that must be repaid over the next days. If it isn’t, you will get chronically sleep deprived and will not achieve any kind of optimal heath. There is actually a sleep syndrome called ‘Insufficient Sleep Syndrome’ that is seen commonly in our society.”

Fractured REM and Other Common Sleep Problems

Many elderly people complain of poor sleep. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there are several possible factors for this:

  • Many antidepressants suppress deep REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.
  • Heavy smokers often sleep very lightly and have reduced amounts of REM sleep. They also tend to wake up after 3 or 4 hours of sleep due to nicotine withdrawal.
  • Many people who suffer from insomnia try to solve the problem with alcohol by having a drink before bed. While alcohol does help people fall into light sleep, it also robs them of REM and the deeper, more restorative stages of sleep. Instead, it keeps them in the lighter stages of sleep, from which they can be awakened easily.
  • People tend to sleep more lightly and for shorter time spans as they get older, although they generally need about the same amount of sleep as they needed in early adulthood. According to the NIH, about half of all people over 65 have frequent sleep problems, including as insomnia, and deep sleep stages in many elderly people often become very short or stop completely. These sleep problems may be a normal part of aging or may be the result of medical problems common in the elderly population and from the medications and other treatments for those problems.”

According to Dr. Feuerstein, another common problem associated with aging is physiological: As people age they get less REM sleep every night and so sleep becomes more fractious.

REM sleep is important because it stimulates the brain regions used in learning. “This may be important for normal brain development during infancy, which would explain why infants spend much more time in REM sleep than adults,” write the authors of a paper on the NIH website.

And REM sleep has other important implications. For example, while rats normally live for two to three years, those deprived of REM sleep survive only about 5 weeks on average, and rats deprived of all sleep stages live only about 3 weeks, the NIH paper says.

The upshot of this is to make sure you get your sleep. “Mind-body techniques such as guided imagery, meditation, self- hypnosis are very useful for mild sleep disturbances,” advises Dr. Feuerstein.

Other helpful natural sleep-inducing techniques will be explored in a later article.