It’s fair to say, I have spent years, in fact decades, pursuing my curiosity as to how chronic illness relates to hibernation because of the seasonal ups and downs of my own health. Noticing various patterns, which is what I am best at, I have formulated various hypotheses over that span of time and, following my most recent experiences of health “dip” and putting those together with studies I have come across along the way, that theory has never felt more coherent, nor so relatively simple to grasp (some of the most potent and life-altering things are often that simple).
So I want to share it here, in case it resonates. I have to stress, this is my own personal hypothesis and opinion, I am not a scientist or doctor, however everything I outline here is consistent with my own seasonal experiences of fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, POTs, central sensitivity syndrome, electro-hypersensitivity and glutamate issues, plus those of quite a few other people I have encountered along the way. I have added links to some of the studies I have drawn on right at the end so as not to over-complicate the beautiful simplicity of what I am about to propose with too much scientific jargon. Here goes.
Human beings are mammals and therefore, surely, the urge to hibernate or seasonally conserve energy must have existed in us at some point in adaptation to extreme circumstances, if less obvious now than at any point in our history (with caveats for some of us that may be more strongly inclined towards a seasonal dip for genetic reasons, coming up). Winter seasons can be harsh and, at some points in our genetic history, far harsher than they currently are, with the inherent issues of cold and scarcity combining to make it preferable if not necessary to conserve energy by sleeping or dozing for the duration of the darker months.
What I have hit upon is the idea that (paradoxically) the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamates may play a most crucial part in this ability to surrender to the state of sleep or torpor that is hibernation in a way that ensures that the hibernating party remains relatively protected for the duration of that “sleep”. Because, as well as being messengers that instruct movement in the body, it has been discovered that glutamates serve as an early warning system, especially of cold but also presumably of other environmental conditions of relevance to an entity that has surrendered itself and lies vulnerable for the duration. You could think of it as a smoke alarm near a bedroom; all the safer to go to sleep if you can trust that the alarm will alert you to a fire, should one break out…only, this alarm is on the inside!
I mention a genetic predisposition to higher glutamates and this seems to be particularly the case with autism and ADHD, about which there is a fair amount of information. Perhaps, also, this innate early-warning system gets honed throughout life by some of the difficult experiences of being neurodiverse. Certain health-related experiences such as viruses can also trigger excess glutamate, for instance as a post-herpatic response or in the guise of long covid due to the body “learning” from the experience of the virus to become even more responsive to threat than before the virus (glutamates are the amino strongly associated with neuroplasticity).
It makes sense that hibernatory animals would have evolved an early-warning system for detecting environmental changes, even when deep underground or in the dark (otherwise, how do they even know that spring is on the way). As I mentioned, especially to increased cold but also sensitivity to any other changes or threats that might compromise their survival through the winter has to be considered useful if not essential.
There are other amino acids that are instrumental in modulating the effect of glutamates before they get out of control otherwise we would all have the issue of too many glutamates all of the time. GABA is the primary inhibitory amino for mitigating the effects of glutamate and taurine can also have useful effects. In the healthy body, these occur naturally as a result of diet. You could imagine that, during the long-term fasting period of winter, some of these aminos are likely scarce to hibernating creatures but as modern humans, we have access to them and can educate ourselves on their various effects, to appropriately modify our diet at any time of year and take supplements accordingly. In certain health chronic health conditions, and and in the case of autism and ADHD, levels of these modulatory aminos can be compromised and it can be beneficial to supplement (see below). Glutamate may be the most abundant neurotransmitter in the brain and central nervous system and is essential in lots of ways but there’s such a thing as too much of anything and, in this case, there can be a whole range of issues from too many glutamates and its excitatory effect and it can even trigger cell death.
The effect of excessively high levels of glutamate can be gradual, as in, you didn’t see it coming or it can be extremely abrupt, with no apparent trigger for the sudden change in how your body is feeling. Both of these are consistent with the onset of chronic illnesses. They can include the feeling of being jittery, irritated, wired but tired, hyperactive, hyperfixated, hypersensitive or allergic, experiencing widespread iterations of pain or even feeling burned-out, brain-foggy and chronically depleted like a sort of torpor. Yet these effects feel externally driven, as though the primary instruction for the changed state comes from some outside signal; especially once they start repeating, as they tend to do in the chronic health state.
This is because the signal to increase glutamate production in the body, as happens in a state of hibernation, is highly instinctual and uses infrastructure of the nervous system that we know very little about as yet. Worse there is a general lack of curiosity or credence given to hibernatory mechanisms because it is over-assumed that we humans are not hibernatory by nature and that animal behaviours are curious only for their own sake.
However, let’s assume for a moment that (across various species) there is a general increase of glutamates during the darker months, by design, to serve as an early warning system when conditions become harder to navigate using the five senses we ordinarily rely upon. Scientists can only so-far speculate why this increase of glutamates occurs, although one link between glutamates and the ability for the sleeping animal to detect changing levels of cold has now been found. Other useful “early warning” factors must also apply to the glutamate role.
For instance, the squirrel underground remains remarkably alert, though in torpor to conserve energy. It’s ears still rotate to any sound and, when levels of glutamates raise to a certain threshold (which can happen every few days) it rouses and moves around a little before settling back down into hibernation.
These repeated arousals are known to be hugely depleting compared to actual sleep; bears, which do not hibernate so much as doze throughout winter, return from hibernation extremely befuddled and off-their-game for the next two to three weeks. I have to say, this is much how it feels to deal with the repealed ups and downs, the unrefreshing sleep, of chronic conditions. What seems to be presumed in some studies is that steadily increasing glutamates throughout hibernation overlap the arousal period to ensure the animal becomes fully alert as quickly as possible as a survival imperative as they go through their adjustment periods. However, imagine how disrupting and even painful that would be if arousal happened every few days; because glutamates are not only highly stimulating: they can cause jitteriness, hypervigilance, sensory processing disarray and intense widespread pain.
The way nature balances the highly-necessary (protective) increased glutamate levels over winter (which would otherwise be extremely triggering, even painful) seems to be to balance them with endogenous opioids (enkephalins and endophins) which are inbuilt opioids released by the brain and which presumably keep the vagus nerve and beyond from over-reacting to every rattle and bump, not to mention moderating pain signals. This source of natural pain relief presumably mitigates what would otherwise be the extremely intense experience of having too many glutamates at large whilst also keeping the animal in a state of torpor for the duration of winter. In fact, it is speculated that that this is how hibernation “happens”; as in, high levels of opioid encourage torpor during shorter days but then, as days get longer, certain environmental cues signal the reduction of opioids so that the animal arouses due to the increased effect of glutamates, stimulating the animal awake. In humans, lowered levels of these natural opioids can play a part in chronic illness, depression, addiction…
Meanwhile glutamate’s opposite factor GABA, which has been found to be at higher levels during hibernation (relative to summer) goes into self-preservation mode (the process known as the GABA-shunt, a closed-loop process to conserve GABA) in March, perhaps poised to mop up all those excess glutamates once arousal is complete. Low level of GABA, all year round, is a known factor in chronic illness and autism; leaving glutamates running wild!
Speculations as to what reduces those opioids include geomagnetic effects in the environment. Natural geomagnetic effects, which vary in intensity at different times of the year, are one source. Manmade EMFs are, these days, another major source, as at least one study has now shown. Therefore, its fair to say, EMFs from human technology tamper with the hibernatory effect!
These days, when it comes to the electromagnetic environment, there are no real seasons since we bathe ourselves in highly artificial environments polluted by electromagentic effects throughout every month of the year, perhaps even more so in the darker more sedentary months. In effect, it was discovered that EMFs block the opioid effect of endogenous opioids in the body the same way as an opiate neutralising drug!
So, glutamates, make you more sensitive to EMFs and then those very EMFs may turn off the very mechanism whereby those glutamates are held in check. Its very easy to imagine has this could lead to a state of chronic pain and overwhelm!
It’s also easy to speculate how this degree of sensitivity to electromagnetic variables (facilitated by glutamates) was useful, evolutionarily, as a means of initiating and ending the periods of hibernation and keeping the animal safe for the duration. One way being to alert them to any major geomagnetic events that might compromise safety (an alarm that perhaps derives from a genetic recollection of previous geomagnetic disasters events, as per when dinosaurs were wiped out by some sort of spaceweather effect). Importantly a spike of EMFs at spring equinox likely stirs those animals that haven’t already registered the general uptick in geomagnetic activity that natural occurs at springtime, in order to arouse them from their torpor and get going with he business of life at the surface. I speculate, it does this by dramatically reducing endogenous opioids, thus increasing the effect of all those glutamates and stimulating them awake. However, in our modern world we undergo an EMF onslaught at all times of the year…
What happens when the modern-day human is also tank-full of glutamates and they are surrounded by EMFs that act as a trigger to their inbuilt early warning system? No matter how cosy, quiet and warm your winter spent indoors taking it easy by the fireside, your nervous system can be getting triggered left and right by exposure to too many EMFs. Electro stress is real but never more so than in the hibernatory season, if our bodies are that way inclined (glutamate levels dependent) and though I used EMFs as one example, this is not the only way our modern lives have become highly over-stimulating, year-round regardless of the seasons. Magnetic fields also encourage growth, positively (as in bone growth) and negatively (as in tumours) and, as with excess glutamates, growth under wrong circumstances (eg, in an in appropriate season or in a body that is misfiring) is far more likely to be the undesirable kind.
So, exposure to EMFs has been shown to deplete endogenous opioids (see below). This depletes the very thing I propose is used to buffer the effect of having seasonally increased glutamates during the autumn and winter (even more following illness, eg.post-virally, when glutamates may be at an all-time high). As such, glutamates are left to do their worse over those darker months, being to greatly overstimulate the nervous system and signal pain; in fact, ever escalating pain for many people with chronic conditions and very often much worse in winter.
I would add, from own experiences and comparison with others, the longer a state of higher glutamates persists, the more sensitivities increase and to a wider range of triggers. For instance, I first noticed I was sensitive to natural geomagnetic variables around a decade ago a few years into chronic illness, when I became acutely sensitive to solar flares (starting with intense migraines when they occurred). Half a decade later, I also became highly sensitive to manmade EMFs and, now, both effect me equally. Sensitivity to the waxing and waning moon is another factor that has increased over those years; I feel sure hibernatory creatures (and my genetic forebears) would relate to this. I now look back to realise I was subliminally over-sensitive to artificial lighting all my life and that working in a brightly lit open-plan office was a tipping point for my health right before I crashed. Food sensitivities are another factor that tend to worsen with this kind of ongoing health state (glutamates have a great deal to do with the gut) and can become more severe in the darker season.
Another coping response by the body to out-of-balance glutamates (as well as to feel highly overstimulated) is that it can instinctively throw you into an even deeper state of hibernatory torpor, to distract and protect you from all the increased pain and sensory overwhelm until it is all over, like sleeping through the worst of the winter season on low energy mode. Only, in chronic health conditions, it all feels like something your body “just wants to get through” so you can end up feeling like this most of the time!
Its been found that, during hibernation, hibernating animals are able to tolerate otherwise lethal radiation doses and resist infection by microbes and other disease-causing organisms, even cancerous tumor growth is slowed down. Its worth noting, unchecked glutamate is growth-encouraging yet growth in an inappropriate season does not sound sensible at all; thus its important that certain glutamate behaviours are held in check by the hibernatory state (not necessarily so in the chronic health state). In other words, the body regards deep sleep as highly protective and this could be a main player as a root cause to chronic illness (if the body feels under threat from all sides, it may instigate this as a survival mechanism). Perhaps this effect of being “overstimulated to sleep” has some bearing on how and why animals fall into their sleepy torpor as glutamates rise; my analogy is that its like taking a baby out for a drive, playing loud music, rocking or otherwise overstimulating it in order to lull it to sleep. This state of falling into a highly-overstimulated torpor may be how hibernation begins…but it also seems a lot like ME or chronic fatigue syndrome when it happens to a human beings on a regular basis; certainly to me!
A drop in core temperature and of heart rate, not to mention a sort of inability to breath deeply or consistently (as if to conserve energy), have been repeated issues of my chronic illness during the darker months. Metabolism slows in these chronic states (metabolism of hibernating animals drop to almost nothing). Surely these factors too closely resemble what happens during hibernation to be overlooked.
Also, though some movement is important, I have never found the terribly detrimental build up of toxins you would expert during long periods of inexertia through chronic fatigue and it would, in fact, be far worse to push through with some over-exertive exercise regime (as studies of long-covid are finally flagging up) see my post on this. Exercise intolerance is its own flag to the chronic sufferer to not do more than their current state of metabolism can cope with, or risk making it much, much worse. Likewise, bears emerge from hibernation with no significant loss of muscle after their long inactivity; its as though normal rules don’t apply. Rather, what I have learned is to go with the flow, listening to times when my body indicates it is appropriate to do some gentle movement before settling down again, no fixed regimes or flogging myself. This sounds a lot like how squirrels and other deep hibernators periodically arouse themselves during hibernation (see below).
When things get really scrambled in chronic illness, they don’t even have to remain strictly seasonal though I suspect there is always an element of this seasonal variance for most people. Hot weather can also act as a trigger once glutamates get out of hand and neither extreme hot or cold reactions have to apply to your immediate environment indoors since your nervous system is using as its informant these ancient biological techniques designed to assess what is happening in the much wider environment, way beyond the local conditions of the burrow or cave. For years, I have scratched my head as to why I can feel the cold at high altitudes on a frosty night, though I am buried deep under blankets and covers with the fire on; no, I wasn’t imagining it…it was probably my glutamates tipping me off!
So there’s my hypotheses about hibernation and the key part played by high levels of glutamate in the chronically unwell body state. Here’s a summary of how to mitigate this effect to get your health into a better place:
- Avoid excess EMFs and other obvious triggers
- Downregulate any glutamate surplus with amino acids, especially GABA and also taurine (see this website as an invaluable resource for amino supplements)
- Support the endogenous opioid system with CBD (the cannabidoid and opioid systems interact and CBD helps balance the vagus nerve)
- Seek natural daylight or it’s closest equivalent without adding surplus EMFS (this brand of full-spectrum lamps and bulbs is the best I’ve found). By the way UV in daylight increases glutamates but this is offset by increased endorphins.
- Encourage melatonin later in the day (there are plenty of resources on how) in support of the over sensitive pituitary gland which mostly works overtime at night (a large numbers of glutamate receptors are located there)
- Take measures to calm the nervous system with multi-approach methods such as the Gupta Program especially the vagus nerve (see my post on that)
- Target any post viral effects and toxins with antioxidants and especially N-acetylcysteine (NAC) if tolerated, which proactively tackles glutamates build-up, backed by various studies such as this one; I was astonished at how effective NAC was when I first tried it and wished I had known years ago!
- Learn other natural methods for reducing glutamates (see here) and have them all at hand
- Don’t ever over-expend your energy by pushing through exercise activities during a glutamate flare (or when your body is feeling generally “hibernatory”); rather conserve your energy whilst making sure to move regularly in gentle ways (for instance qigong, movement to music) to remove toxic buildup.
- Get into a seasonal mindset when it comes to expectations and activities
- Track geomagnetic variables to learn how they correlate with your symptom variables (for instance, migraines) and be impressed at how your body ‘just knows’ these things are happening
- Eat for the season, prioritising energy sustaining and nutritious diet delivered in modest portions over the cultural trend to overindulge as days shorten
- Pay attention to foods your body rejects and how this varies with the seasons (per recent post). Those containing high glutamates may be an especial problem (which includes some of the veg with a more umami flavour but processed foods containing the many versions of MSG are by far the worst culprits). Caffeine also increases glutamate levels, even in green tea (which contains l-theanine) so watch out.
- Get out of the modern trap of thinking busy is always best
- Sleep…and when you need to, sleep some more, without self-censure
- Avoid or limit all forms of overstimulation (including dietary sources such as sugar). By the way high levels of glutamate can lead to diabetes.
- Do what you can to boost endorphins by natural/healthy means, not by over-eating or over-exercising (there are plenty of online suggestions) including using amino acids, resource as before.
- Learn to love and appreciate the season you are in beyond any associations with struggle you may have formed during your illness; do your best to enjoy the best each season has to offer
- Remember to relax the mind as well as the body (don’t use winter to catch up on all your mental activities) and allow dreamy thoughts and inspiration that ‘just’ arises to fill some hours (in fact, prioritise them)
- Consider your hibernatory urges and obvious attunement with nature and the animal kingdom to be a fascinating gift; explore it with interest and wonder.
- Smile a little at those who run around making themselves so busy and stressed all year round as if their tails are on fire and take comfort from how beautifully simple your chronic illness has caused you to make your own life!
Extracts from science:
“Using quantitative microdialysis in hibernating Arctic ground squirrels (AGS), striatal glutamate concentrations ([glu](dia)) progressively increased to approximately 200 microM after 3 days of microdialysis in euthermic but not hibernating ground squirrels. Initially, the progressive increase in [glu](dia) was thought to be related to greater tissue response in euthermic animals. Alternatively, given the vastly different body temperatures between the two groups (37 vs. 3 degrees C), glutamate might have originated from microbes, replicating at a faster rate in the warmer animals.” Microbial origin of glutamate, hibernation and tissue trauma.
“Relative to summer levels, plasma glutamine levels increase during late torpor, remain high during early arousal and begin to decrease during interbout arousal (Epperson et al. 2011). Moreover, in liver, decreases in glucose and increases in glutamine are robust biomarkers of torpor (Serkova et al. 2007). These observations support the hypothesis that glutamate is poised to serve as a neurosignaling molecule that reflects metabolic status. In this way a decrease in NMDAR occupancy could induce arousal from hibernation in response to a need for gluconeogenesis and elimination or recycling of nitrogenous wastes.” Inhibition of NMDM type glutamate receptors induces arousal from torpor in hibernating arctic ground squirrels.
“Since some form of hibernation — in which body temperature and metabolism are reduced — has been observed in nine orders of mammals, it is likely that the genetic basis for this ability is ancient and widespread and that it could be exploited for various purposes. “If our research could help by showing how to reduce metabolic rates and oxygen demands in human tissues, one could possibly save people””. How scientists hope to use what they learn from bears in application for human medicine, Bears uncouple temperature and metabolism for hibernation, new study shows.
“Your brain makes its own versions of opioids, called endogenous opioids*. These chemicals act just like opioid drugs, attaching to opioid receptors in your brain. Endogenous opioids help your body control pain.”
“When black bears emerge from hibernation in spring, it has been shown that they have not suffered the losses in muscle and bone mass and function that would be expected to occur in humans over such a long time of immobility and disuse” Bears uncouple temperature and metabolism for hibernation, new study shows.
“All known deep hibernators arouse periodically during their hibernation to get rid of the metabolic waste that has built up. For the ground squirrel, it’s about every week. It re-warms for about three hours, then re-enters hibernation.” How do hibernating animals know when to wake up?
Hibernation is characterized by a drastic decrease in metabolic rate and associated decreases in body temperature, heart rate and respiratory rate. As a general depression in autonomic functions is characteristic of entry into hibernation and during the hibernation state, it is quite possible that an increase in endogenous opioid activity could facilitate hibernation. Several studies have implicated that endogenous opioids may participate in the entrance and/or the maintenance of hibernation. As endogenous opioids and their receptors are shown to exist in pancreas, intestine, and adrenal gland, it is possible that peripheral opioids may also contribute to the regulation of hibernation.” Is Endogenous Opioid Involved in Hibernation, Lawrence C.H. Wang
“Glutamate is the major excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain and may be a key neurotransmitter involved in autism.” The role of glutamate and its receptors in autism and the use of glutamate receptor antagonists in treatment
“There is increasing evidence that abnormalities in glutamate signalling may contribute to the pathophysiology of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).” Glutamate/glutamine and neuronal integrity in adults with ADHD: a proton MRS study
Glutamate receptors are chemical-sensing receptors that are well known to mediate chemical synaptic transmission/plasticity in the central nervous system. Our results reveal an unexpected case where a central chemical receptor functions as a thermal receptor in the periphery. As glutamate receptors are evolutionarily conserved, this raises the intriguing possibility that in addition to sensing chemicals (i.e. glutamate), one ancestral function of glutamate receptors might be to sense non-chemical cues such as temperature.” A cold-sensing receptor encoded by a glutamate receptor gene.
A molecular pathway involving glutamate receptors and their downstream effectors appears to contribute to an imbalance of excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmission in a mouse model of fragile X syndrome. Cell Reports.
“Entering through angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 receptors,2 SARS-CoV-2 can damage endothelial cells leading to inflammation, thrombi, and brain damage. Moreover, systemic inflammation leads to decreased monoamines and trophic factors and activation of microglia, resulting in increased glutamate and N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA)3 and excitotoxicity (Figure). These insults induce new-onset or re-exacerbation of preexisting NPs.” How covid affects the brain.
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