Human believe that they are not the same as other animals in the world and in many ways this is a true statement, but there are many things that are the same between humans and other animals. One of the most important similarities is the need for rest, whether it is sleeping or just relaxing. Another similarity is that all animals have lower activity levels in the winter months (colder time of the year) as compared to the summer months (warmer time of the year).
This paper is going to examine on area of similarity that has been misunderstood for so long that there is no longer any fresh materials on the subject. This is the topic of torpor or a significant slowdown of bodily function in a human being. Additionally, I am going to provide information to show that humans go through a period of slow down just as much as other animals do and this has been mistaken for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) as well as how this mistake is causing more problems than doing any good.
The world slows down in the cold months of winter and this is a phenomena that has been known for centuries. Animals with the ability to hibernate will do so, plant will go dormant and all of the rest of the world will slow down. History has shown that humans will also go through a period of slow down during the colder months, which was usually obscured by the patterns of agriculture. While humans have believed that they were more than highly developed humans for centuries, the belief in overcoming all of the effects of the natural world only started in the 1700’s when the rational skill became highly prized. In fact, during the modern times of the 20th century and going forward, it is believed that a human can have the same levels of productivity throughout the whole of the year even though there is incidences that can be cited through all of history that show that even humans have to take a step back in activity during the coldest time of the year.
Before the end of World War II, most humans worked with the patterns of nature, but this is also when most of the working world still lived on farms. Farms are far less active during the winter months and the humans were allowed to rest on the food stores like other animals do. Also, many traditional human activities such as Christmas and Thanksgiving are related to the need to increase calories for the torpor of the winter and prepare food for long term storage. Other holidays such as Brigid’s Mass (Groundhog Day) and Lent (40 days of fasting in many of the Christian religions) are to assist the humans in managing through these slower months and surviving.
Cold season during the winter months of most parts of the world and it is believed that this is mostly the cause of the restrictions to indoor activities, but it is could also be because of the immune system not being as activity during the colder months. The human body like so many other animals go into a type of torpor during the colder season and this affects the immune system, as the whole body is functioning at a far lower rate of productivity and efficacy. Other evidence of the slower system of the human body is found in longer hours of sleep and deeper sleep during this time of year. Higher numbers of mistakes, less work being completed and over-all sleepiness. Many people complain of fatigue and/or a notable loss of productivity during the colder months.
The symptoms of seasonal torpor include: long periods of deep or deeper sleep with periods of activity between sleeping spells, sluggishness, dullness, stupor as well as higher levels of fatigue during the awake periods (Medicinenet.com, 2015). Additional symptoms noted in other animals includes decrease in overall appetite but increase desire for higher fat and higher protein foods; lower body temperature, lower heart rates and more shallow breathing.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a disorder of the modern times, having been a disorder only since the earlier years of 1980’s (Rosenthal, Sack, Gillin, Lewy, Goodwin, Davenport, Mueller, Newsome, & Wehr, 1984); and in many ways, the fact that there is a disorder for this is also a sign of the changing times as well as the expectations of what a person does with their time. In many ways the symptoms of SAD are similar to those of torpor, including low mood and concentration during particular seasons (often the winter time), increased sleeping, cravings for sugars and other fat sources, low energy and fatigue. As outlined in the earlier section, these symptoms are all associated with the torpor states of most animals.
There is a lot of speculation that there is a relationship between the torpor states or at least the slowing downing of the human body during the winter months. Tests have been completed to find that there is a relationship between hormones and sunlight (Judd, 2008) and the Melatonin the brain produces and gets rid of. Melatonin is associated with tiredness and fatigue as well as many of the other symptoms of SAD. There has been other research on this disorder to locate the cause but little has been found outside of the changing the hormones that naturally adjust through the year.
In many ways, it is argued that SAD is just a more extreme form of the Winter Blues that affect everyone and the difference is that the affected people are not able to fight the symptoms off with large amounts of coffee and ‘mind-over-matter’ therapies. While this might hold a candle of truth, there is another side of this, in that most people are not able (not a willing issue) to fight of the winter blues. SAD diagnosis are people that need a break more than most during the winter months and there are plenty of people that do need to take the time of the winter to relax and recharge for the coming year. A person that takes this time and does so happily often is not seen as having a disorder. A person that fights the needs of the body will become distraught over the lack of energy and there could result in a feeling of depression from a fight of the mind with the body.
It was noted on the Mental Health America website (2014) that the age groups primarily affected by SAD are 18 to early 50’s or the ages in which a person is the most active and living with the highest expectations for community activity, productivity and involvement. The pressure of the social activities in addition to the natural torpor state might in fact create the feelings of depression and also result in the far more extreme symptoms that are associated with SAD. In other words, SAD is a disorder that has been culturally created because social and productive culture has not taken natural processes into consideration. Instead of allowing the human body to do what it is supposed to naturally, fighting has resulted in a Seasonal Disorder.
Hot Chocolate for the Soul
While many might not see the creation of a disorder as a problem as there at least half a million people in America affected by severe cases of the “winter blues” but on the other hand, there are too many people that are still fighting the natural state of winter living instead of letting it be what it is. For many of the people that have SAD in milder forms, they might be better off allowing their bodies to process through the natural seasonal patterns instead of using lights and other measures to force themselves into more productive states. There is nothing wrong with sleeping a bit more and spending more time watching TV during the winter. Much like sleep is a time for the body to be at rest, so too is the winter season. This is a time for reading, resting and rejuvenating for the rest of the year.
As for treatment of the seasonal blues, one should examine what has been done in the cultures closest to the Arctic Circle as well as what agrarian cultures did during the cold months for hundreds of years. Most of these people survived the winter with no light bulbs or medication because they understood something about the cycles of time and life. Also, the celebrations of the passage of time like Christmas and Groundhog Day should be held in the highest esteem. The darkest days are battled with the greatest hope, and the knowledge of the end of suffering is the greatest hope of all.
Humans have been encourage to believe that they are not animals and as a result they are not victims to the calls of nature and cycles of life like all of the other animals on this planet. But time again, this has been proven to be a fallacy, not only because of the relationship of physical similarities we have with primates but also because of the core behaviors humans engage in for survival of the self and the species.
One area of the cycle of life that has been placed in the realm of human self-control has been the responses to the seasonal cycle but the prevalence and views of the disorder Seasonal Affective Disorder have shown that humans are as much victims to the seasons as all other animals. And instead of accepting the colder, winter months as a time for rest and rejuvenation, humans elect to fight it and as a result causing pain to a half a million people in America. This paper outlined the similarity of the symptoms for torpor states of winter rest and the diagnostic criteria for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This paper also indicated that the better treatment for the disorder is for humans to accept that the cycles of life are real and should be allowed to follow like so many other things in the natural world. Sometimes, the best solution for a problem is to realize that it is not a problem at all.
Crossingham, J. & Kalman, B. (2002). What is Hibernation? New York, NY: Crabtree Publishing Company.
Hickman, P. & Stephens, P. (2005). Animals Hibernating: How Animals survive extreme conditions. Tonawanda, NY: Kids Can Press Ltd.
Judd, S. J. (Ed.). (2008). Depression Handbook. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, Inc.
MedicineNet.Com (2014) Defiantion: Torpor. Retrieved from http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=24814
Mental Health America. (2014) Seasonal Affective Disorder. Retrieved from http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/conditions/sad
Rosenthal, N. E.; Sack, D. A.; Gillin, J. C.; Lewy, A. J.; Goodwin, F. K.; Davenport, Y.; Mueller, P. S.; Newsome, D. A.; Wehr, T. A. (1984). “Seasonal affective disorder. A description of the syndrome and preliminary findings with light therapy”. Archives of general psychiatry 41 (1): 72–80. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1984.01790120076010
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Relevance to a Possible Human Hypometabolic State. Retrieved from http://www.esa.int/gsp/ACT/doc/ARI/ARI%20Study%20Report/ACT-RPT-BIO-ARI-036501-Morpheus-Verona.pdf