As our fellow Hub writer Martin Fahey puts his tortoise to bed for the next 3-4 months, Ellina Webb looks at what hibernation is and whether it could do anything for humans.

As the temperatures dropped last week and it became just that bit harder to get out of the bed in the morning, the reality set in that winter had arrived. For some lucky creatures in this world, such as Martin’s tortoise however, the need to “get up” over the next 4 months has gone as November marked the start of hibernation season.

For those unlucky creatures such as us humans, November marked the start of a season which poses serious risk to health. In 2015 nearly 44,000 people in the UK died from cold related illnesses.

The Hibernation Effect

Did you know that Hibernation is derived from the Latin term Hibernare which means “to pass the winter”?

There are many animals across the world which hibernate somewhere between the months of November and April. Here in the UK there are actually only three wild British mammals that do so – the hedgehog, dormice and bats. Insects also hibernate during the time, including bees, ladybirds and butterflies. More commonly however, we associate hibernation with Tortoises – and I’m sure we all remember the annual Blue Peter episode where George was prepared for hibernation?

Not all forms of hibernation are the same however, in fact they actually differ between regular sleep which makes the animal inactive and decreases its metabolism, to “torpor” which is a state between sleep and full hibernation and involves a significant drop in body temperature (much like putting your computer in Hibernation mode!).

Within this particular state of hibernation the body’s core temperature drops to almost match the outside air temperature and both respiration and the heart rate slows down, allowing the creature to conserve energy and survive on its storage of body fat. 

Essentially hibernation is a biologically fascinating way to enable certain animals to survive and not freeze to death in the passing winter – so if animals and computers can do it, why don’t humans do it too?

 

The Hibernating Human

The obvious thought here would be that if humans were to naturally hibernate, we may not have advanced into humankind today. But actually, according to this article on Science Focus, humans don’t naturally hibernate because we have evolved from tropical ancestors, and have only migrated to colder climates in the past 100,000 years – thus not evolving hibernation adaptations (although as this article on the BBC points out, hibernation is also a way to survive extreme heat too and there are tropical creatures that do so). 

For sci-fi fanatics out there however, the hibernating human is also one we often see as an aspect of film, literature and TV.

After all, the lengthy distances involved in space travel make hibernation the perfect life preserving method. In fact in films like Interstellar, Alien and Passenger, hibernation pods (or “suspended animation” as its often referred to) are essential to the storylines and highlight how the hibernating human is a technological advancement that we may one day actually be capable of emulating (in fact NASA are already looking into it!).

 

The Reality of the Hibernating Human

In the UK alone there were nearly 44,000 “excess” deaths over winter in 2015 and while there are many reasons behind this number, such as the significant costs to the NHS in providing Flu vaccinations for everyone, it does makes me wonder if human hibernation could change this alarming statistic?

However when it comes to the number of winter deaths in the UK, the most surprising thing is that the cold weather isn’t always directly to blame.

In comparison to the number of deaths in colder countries – like Norway for example, the mortality rates are far less due to lower costs of fuel and better insulation of homes. Therefore, as Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK discussed on the Guardian website last year, the actual issue is fuel poverty which is increasing because people cannot afford to heat their homes adequately.

In 2013 there were 4.5 million people in the UK who were in fuel poverty, meaning cold homes were a massive killer.

Ellina Webb Ellina Webb Senior Marketing Specialist

In 100 years’ time and after about 5,000,000 more winter deaths, where hibernation fantasy might actually be reality, could this help solve this issue?

It’s unlikely that it will be solved in our lifetime or I believe it’s unlikely that human hibernation is the way forward, so for now I think that the only way to change this statistic is to tackle issues like fuel poverty and insulation – as Caroline Abraham said.

Social housing providers have been leading the way in tackling fuel poverty, especially in off-gas areas, where we have seen a significant increase in the use of renewable technologies such as air source heat pumps.

Not only does this help tenants heat their whole home more cost effectively, rather than just one or two rooms, it lowers the landlord’s carbon footprint and is better for the upkeep of the property as well.

We all know that a warm home is a healthy home, and being warm to “pass through the winter” is what’s important here – for the health and happiness of everyone.

So while some animals have the luxury of hibernation we can have the luxury of using low carbon systems to reduce fuel poverty and effectively heat our homes - we just need to take advantage of the opportunities and embrace whatever technology allows us to do next.

 

Ellina Webb is a Senior Marketing Executive at Mitsubishi Electric

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