As the cold winter months settle in, many of us yearn for the ability to hibernate, a phenomenon observed in various animals to survive extended periods of darkness and scarcity. Surprisingly, the concept of hibernation, or a human equivalent known as “lotska,” has historical roots and potential implications for human health.
Dating back to 1900, the British Medical Journal documented the lotska, a form of dormancy-like hibernation practiced by farmers in Pskov, Russia. Faced with severe winter scarcity, individuals in this region would sleep through the dark winter months, awakening only once a day to consume a meagre meal of bread and water. Similar practices were noted in Inuit Greenlandic stories, where extended hibernation-like sleep was described during the prolonged darkness of the winter season.
Recent scientific studies have explored the possibility that ancient human ancestors, known as hominins, might have hibernated around 400,000 years ago. Bones discovered in a Spanish cave exhibited signs of seasonal growth disruption, suggesting a strategy similar to that of cave bears to endure harsh winters.
Hibernation in animals involves profound changes in metabolism, combining factors such as reduced calorie intake, lower body temperature, and decreased metabolism. Notably, animals that hibernate tend to live longer than their non-hibernating counterparts. Epigenetic clock studies indicate that hibernation may slow down the aging process in species like marmots and bats, providing valuable insights into the mechanisms of longevity.
Distinguishing between chronological age and biological age is crucial in understanding the aging process. While chronological age merely measures the Earth’s revolutions around the sun, biological age accounts for wear and tear, offering a more personalized and comprehensive measure of health. A 2023 study emphasized the variability of biological age, with temporary increases reversed upon recovery from stress or surgery.
Diseases associated with aging, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, dementia, and chronic kidney disease, are often driven by wear and tear, leading to inflammation, altered gut microbiota, and increased oxidative stress. Recent advancements in epigenetic clocks, coupled with lessons from hibernating animals, suggest potential strategies to treat wear-and-tear-driven diseases. Metformin, a medication for type-2 diabetes, has shown promise in regulating inflammation, insulin sensitivity, and slowing DNA damage caused by oxidative stress.
The application of hibernation studies extends to various medical fields, including traumatic brain injuries, severe blood loss, muscle and bone preservation, and improved organ transplantation protection. A 2018 study highlighted the benefits of mimicking hibernation conditions for the storage of renal grafts, improving their preservation.
Examining long-lived, non-hibernating animals such as the Greenland shark, naked mole rat, Icelandic clam, and Rougheye rockfish reveals additional mechanisms for longevity. Flavonoids, found in citrus fruits, berries, onions, apples, and parsley, have anti-inflammatory properties and protect against organ damage. Genetic studies of the Rougheye rockfish point towards a connection between certain genes associated with flavonoid metabolism and longevity.
The lessons drawn from nature and hibernating animals emphasize the importance of preserving cells, regulating metabolism, and genetic adaptations in promoting longevity. Lifestyle and dietary choices emerge as crucial tools to mimic these mechanisms, encouraging a healthier and potentially longer life.
Interestingly, the role of sleep in longevity cannot be overlooked. A study from March 2023 revealed that quality sleep could add years to one’s life, with men gaining five additional years and women two and a half years. Defining good quality sleep as seven to eight hours per day without the need for sleep medication, waking up rested at least five days a week, highlights the profound impact of sleep on human health.
With animals displaying diverse sleeping patterns, from bears and marmots hibernating for months to elephants getting only two hours of sleep a day, scientists are intrigued by the mysteries of how these extremes coexist. Exploring the solutions nature has devised may pave the way for innovative approaches to improving human health and unravelling the secrets of longevity.