Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Could humans hibernate?

We spend so much time worrying if our bodies get enough nutrition. We're told that key nutrients are required daily. If you accept that other animals have similar physiology to us and therefore similar daily needs for nutrients then how can we explain hibernation. In this article I wonder what would make hibernation possible, whether it's possible that we hibernated at any time during history, whether we have evolved the ability and whether this could make it easier to stay healthy in the modern age?

Crazy idea eh!!

Well I got to thinking this morning that it's not as crazy a notion as it first sounds. Maybe we've lost the ability to now but 10,000-40,000 years ago food will have been scarce for lng periods. So did we just keep moving like nomads or did some, it doesn't even have to be all, of us simply hibernate?

Why should we care? Well apart from just wanting to know, I feel it could teach us a lot about how our attitude to food and drink affects our health. Lots of people around the world restrict their diets for long periods, ramadan springs straight to mind, lent is a much shorter version, those trying out intermittent fasting. There's evidence there may be something to learn from these practices that maybe animals take for granted but humans have forgotten over the millenia of domestication. In effect wild animals are forced to learn just how capable their bodies are. They have no choice. So often it seems that in our domestication we no longer teach our minds or our bodies how to reach their full potential. 

Ok, so it still sounds pretty crazy. Well it really occurred to me whilst watching 'Planet Earth' by the BBC. Watching a polar bear and her cubs coming out of their den for the first time in four months, yes four months!!! Maybe you're thinking 'so what?', well aren't we told that a human's gonna have terrible health unless they eat three meals a day and if they don't have 5 portions of fruit and veg a day then they're gonna have all sorts of troubles. 

Now granted we're not polar bears but it strikes me that they simply can't be that different from us. My understanding of animal biology is that there is often a lot of similarity at the basic level such as structure of muscle, heart, nervous system etc. The essential nutrients are just that because they support our physiology. Now we may be extremely removed from polar bears but then they aren't the only animals that hibernate. Squirrels and foxes do, so do so many others. 

OK, OK I'm not going to say that we're actually descended from polar bears. No. What I'm interested in is how they're able to get by without any food or water for months on end and apparently feel no worse for wear whereas we aren't. How could their bodies maintain sufficient supplies of essential nutrients while we can't. Are they really that different or is it just that their habitat requires this ability and so they've simply either gained the ability through evolutin or similar or they already had the ability they just learnt how to use it. 

Yep, you heard me right, maybe they already had the ability, so I am implying that maybe we still have the ability. Maybe not to go without food for months but maybe a month or so. I'm still struggling to understand how people in very remote locations or during famines and such where fresh food wasn't just scarce it just wasn't around. Particularly during winter.  How did people survive before fridges and freezers were developed to preserve all the nutrients.  What about before we had regular access to cattle and grain. All year round food. Were we always able to find fresh fish, meat and vegetation all round and thus keep food. Did we learn ways of preserving food and its nutrients so we were able to get enough nutrients. 

These are all possible. But I'm talking about how we survived over 40, 000 years. During an ice age. The only example we have today of surviving in an ice age is the poles where if you can't fly and thus reach warmer ground then you're likely to get stuck. Many will build boats and sail to warmer climes but many will be stuck and have to stick it out. 

Polar bears hibernate. Penguins don't but they also don't feed for months while they incubate their egg. As is usual with nature they had to figure this out, they just didn't have a choice. So I'm asking have we ever faced such challenges and did we develop this ability. 

Maybe now I'm starting to build a case. Ok, well, I thought I'd blogged about this earlier but I can't find the article, horizontal gene transfer is an increasing understood process of evolution. It's not something I was taught it's something I figured out, though may be there was research around and quickly found that really is a very important process by which one species can learn from another through sharing genetic material. 

For a short summary I'll give my reasoning. The dna of each cell and species defines what it's capable of. Viruses among other things are known to be able to directly change the dna of a given cell to make it work for their purposes rather than the host animal. This proves that genetic material can easily be changed and that viruses among other things could be used to transfer genetic material from one species to another. I get that this is a huge leap of faith. I actually went a lot futher in this explanation but that's a topic for another day. Suffice to say that it's already being widely accepted and research so it's not a silly point. 

Ok, now I've shown that it's entirely possible for one species to gain capabilities from another it shows that if so many species have the ability to hibernate then it is quite possible that so do we. We can also see that hibernation is generally down to needs. Squirrels in England, particularly near where I work don't hibernate much, if at all, any more simply because there is food available all year round. In fact in the UK there's plenty of it. I hear all the time about foxes and badgers who have moved into towns and cities because it's both warmer and there's plenty of food left in rubbish bins they can find. So they just don't need to hibernate. 

I just wanted to show that animals that could quite as easily hibernate, don't when there's plenty of food around. Ok, so what's all the fuss about. Well it's because I keep feeling pressure to conform to the 'normal' rules of society and have three square meals a day with meat and 3 veg and plenty of fresh fruit. Yet it doesn't all add up. 

I can very easily make a case that this routine makes our bodies dependent on regular supplies of fresh food and link this to many of the diseases of the western world. I can't mention this to anyone because then I'm labelled a freak because apparently it's all proven. Much like you couldn't suggest years ago that the world was round because everyone 'knew' it was flat. 

I was taught that science isn't biased and thus you should simply work with the 'facts' that you can ascertain and attempt to explain them. For me one thing I keep finding is that my hunger does not have a cycle that ties in exactly with three meals a day. In fact I find that as my routine changes, which it does regularly, my hunger adjusts to suit. I've recently been feeding according to hunger. Just making sure I've got plenty of good choices around for when I'm hungry. Lots of fruit, grains etc while also having plenty of fun stuff. I feel fine. Time will tell if I have any problems but my experience say I won't. 

I've changed my diet so many times with little real change I'm not convinced that diet, as long as it's sufficient and of good enough quality and variety, makes little difference. My point being that there is evidence that humans can adjust to the diet they live on much like we can adjust to most things. Some times we can adjust very quickly,  like we do for hot and cold climates, particularly when we go on holiday, or it may take time. Either way I feel that our genetic code contains solutions that have helped us over thousands of years. What hibernation requires is that the body have ways of preserving the essential nutrients. To stop them being oxidised, effectively it's just rusting, and going off in other ways. Animals that hibernate must have ways of correctingthe effects of, or preventing altogether, these processes to ensure the body can still function.  We also know that the metabiolism simply slows down a great deal and thus all processes in the body slow down. 

There is plenty of info out there about people who have looked at slowing their metabolism. Some well researched, some not. However I feel that we must have the ability to preserve nutrients for far longer than is currently believed possible. I just have that feeling that we're capable of more. We just don't know how to utilise this ability. Again I would just like to know what people did before fridges and freezers and also further back during ice ages and other periods where food just wasn't as scarce. 

I feel what we'd learn would help us now. I'm not saying I want to hibernate. I just want to know if we have the inner ability to preserve nutrients and understand more about our bodies true requirements.

I just found a related article human hibernation: secrets behind the big sleep so I know I am not alone in this question :-)
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