One of the things I like least about winter is the feeling of lethargy that seems to inevitably overcome me. It is at odds with my work ethic, which has been severely challenged year-round since the stroke. It is further exacerbated by the onset of cold weather.
When I was younger and in better health, I was always hiking, cross country skiing, gardening, or doing some sort of home improvement project. But those days seem long gone now. I just don’t have the energy or stamina I once had.
Perhaps it is out of denial of the effects of old age, but lately I have been looking for other explanations of this phenomenon. I recently ran across a quote from Anne Morrow Lindbergh, a person I know to have lived an energetic life: “Perhaps I am a bear, or some hibernating animal underneath, for the instinct to be half asleep all winter is so strong in me.” Is it possible that I am dealing with something natural to the human condition? Is it possible that the lethargy of winter is a biological trait that should be accepted and not seen as a deficiency?
In a story published by the BBC, there was this intriguing account:
In 1900, the British Medical Journal published an account of Russian peasants who, the author claimed, were able to hibernate. Existing in a state approaching “chronic famine”, residents of the north-eastern Pskov region would retreat indoors at the first sign of snow, and there gather around the stove and fall into a deep slumber they called “lotska”. Waking once a day to wash some hard bread down with water, the family took it in turns to watch the fire, only rousing themselves fully once spring had broken. No trace of the sleepy peasants of Pskov has ever emerged since, but the fantasy of human hibernation persists, and very occasionally, something that looks very similar to it crosses into reality.
A century later, the story continues: Anna Bagenholm was on a skiing holiday in Norway when she crashed head first into a frozen stream and became trapped under the ice. When rescuers finally arrived, the Swedish radiologist had been submerged for 80 minutes, and her heart and breathing had stopped. Doctors at Tromso University Hospital recorded a body temperature of 13.7 C, the lowest ever observed in a victim of accidental hypothermia. By all accounts she appeared to have drowned. And yet, after careful rewarming and ten days spent in intensive care, Bagenholm woke up. She went on to recover almost fully from her cold brush with death. Under normal circumstances, even a few minutes trapped underwater would be enough to drown a person, and yet Bagenholm had survived for over an hour. Somehow the cold had preserved her.
It’s not the first time the benefits of cold for traumatic injury have been made apparent. As far back as the Napoleonic era, medics noted that wounded infantrymen left out in the cold had better survival rates than the wounded officers kept close to the fire in warmed tents.
In 2006 a 35-year-old man was rescued on a snowy mountainside in Japan 24 days after going missing. He seemed to have survived by entering a state of nearly suspended animation: His organs had shut down, his body temperature had dropped to 71.0 F, and his metabolism had slowed almost to a standstill. Subsequently, the man made a full recovery.
In April 2014, a teenage stowaway flew from California to Hawaii hidden in the wheel well of an airplane, and investigators immediately began to wonder how he had survived the freezing temperatures and low-oxygen conditions of the unpressurized compartment. The latest theory is that he fell into a state of hibernation.
Therapeutic hypothermia is commonly used in hospitals to reduce injury in a wide variety of situations, from surgery to helping infants recuperate following difficult births.
Lowering your body temperature slows your metabolic activity, about 5%–7% for every degree dropped. This in turn reduces the rate at which you consume essential nutrients such as oxygen. Tissues that might become starved of oxygen due to blood loss or cardiac arrest are thus protected. In theory, it is possible that a human being could exist in a state of suspended animation.
Hypothermia is dangerous. Your body wants to be warm and will fight to remain that way. Throughout your life, it will maintain a fairly constant temperature of around 98.6 F. Your body must perform countless constant adjustments to balance heat production with heat lost to the environment, working to keep your temperature within a narrow band. If it drops too low, your blood is shunted away from the exposed skin and gathers in your central torso while you shiver and huddle under blankets. The effects of more severe cold are disastrous.
Most of the people who famously died on the Titanic did so in the icy waters of the North Atlantic which wicked off their lives. When their body temperatures dropped just four degrees below normal, their heartbeats began to flutter. At 77.0 F, they died.
There are, however, certain species of animals that can endure far greater spells of cold. For example, the dwarf lemur of Madagascar spends up to eight months of the year in hibernation—an astounding feat, especially for a primate. The Arctic ground squirrel normally maintains a body temperature similar to our own. But during hibernation, it can survive a core temperature as low as 26.6 F.
An animal prepares for hibernation by building up a thick layer of body fat during late summer and autumn that will provide it with energy during the dormant period. During hibernation, the animal undergoes many physiological changes, including decreased heart rate (by as much as 95%) and decreased body temperature.
Other animals that hibernate include bears, bats, ground squirrels and other rodents, mouse lemurs, the European Hedgehog and other insectivores, monotremes and marsupials. Although hibernation is almost exclusively seen in mammals, some birds, such as the Common Poorwill, may hibernate. How animals survive these states is of great interest to anyone hoping to unlock the secrets of suspended animation in humans.
Interest in the field blossomed in the 1950s as a direct consequence of the space race. NASA poured money into biological research to see if humans might be placed in a state of artificial preservation. In this state, it was hoped, astronauts could be protected from the dangerous cosmic rays zapping through space. Sleeping one’s way to distant stars and planets also meant carrying far less food, water and oxygen, making the ultimate long-haul flight more practical.
In recent years, many scientists have come to believe that outlandish survival stories are not mere flukes or media exaggerations, but rather manifestations of a latent ability to hibernate that all humans possess.
There have been posts since 2006 about a $3.5M pledge from Peter A. Thiel, co-founder and former CEO of PayPal, to promote the anti-aging research Methuselah Foundation, which included cryogenics.
A cell biologist named Mark Roth and his colleagues at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle think that a gaseous compound called hydrogen sulfide may be the key to suspended animation. In 2005, the researchers induced hibernation for the first time in lab mice by having them inhale large doses of hydrogen sulfide gas. The chemical bound with cells in place of oxygen, effectively shutting off all metabolic processes in the mice, and significantly reducing their body temperature. Hours later, when scientists replaced the hydrogen sulfide with normal air, the mice came out of hibernation and showed no adverse effects from the ordeal. Roth later reported in Science that the induced hibernation state had enormous slowing of all metabolism and biological activities.
Though they don’t claim to know everything about it, some scientists think the compound has been in us since life began, 3.5 billion years ago. Because biology carries its baggage around with it, it would not be surprising if humans had an ability to do some pretty ancient chemical reactions.
So it does seem as if it could be applied to humans; suspended animation may be closer than we think. And I have my excuse for winter lethargy: hydrogen sulfide.
My apologies: this is a really simpy song typical of the late ’60s. But I am reminded of it every time my home health care nurse comes up to the house to prove that I’m going to make it for another week.
Groove of the Day