Special to the Tribune-Star
I’ve been thankful this winter for a full propane tank and ample cold cranking amps and school snow-delay days that have kept me off the roads until the sun is up on the most frigid of these mornings.
I’ve appreciated more than my fair share of beautiful winter sunrises and sunsets, too. Grumpy old January, now history, gave us dozens of calendar-worthy pictures of clouds and cardinals, hoary frosts and snowdrifts; February promises the same.
And, while I am trying to remain positive about these shorter, darker days and bitter temperatures, I have to say that this winter has also reintroduced me to the joys of sleeping well.
Ever since the time change last fall, I have found myself yawning by early evening, shunning conversation and televised basketball, and even the perusal of much-anticipated books, all for the sake of slumber, a blanket pulled to my chin and a lazy cat at my feet.
I have very little history of such a condition.
Never a prodigious sleeper, as so many of my high school-aged students claim to be, I don’t think I’ve slept soundly for any extended time since I last bunked under my parents’ roof in the days of longer hair and “The Moody Blues.” Whether it be for psychological or organic reasons, sleep and I, who used to be the best of childhood buddies, had become estranged. Although I do sleep better now than I did a decade ago, this winter has helped me ratchet it up another notch. For most of the past five or six weeks, I can manage only a few pages of reading before I have to snap off the light and roll over into a ball for a “long winter’s nap.” I have not felt guilty one bit.
Rather than believe that this new-found joy for snoozing is due to age, alone, that I am simply worn out by work and worry and now must resign myself to a recliner and television remote about the time the national news comes on, I suspect that just about as soon as the governor tells us we can spring our time forward and the grass is greening, I’ll be back to my usual self, a yard rake in one hand, a golf club in the other. By then, I’ll no longer bother with an alarm clock or go into mild shock when my bare feet hit the kitchen vinyl.
For the latest in sleep research, I turned to the aptly named Dr. W. Christopher Winter, who runs the well-respected Charlottesville (Virginia) Neurology and Sleep Medicine clinic. Winter, a board-certified and nationally recognized sleep medicine doctor and neurologist, appeared just last December on Fox News to discuss “microsleep” and shift-related work in regard to the tragic train crash in New York.
Winter tells me that my sleepiness probably has less to do with age (I keep trying to convince myself of that, too) than with the climate. In other words, if there was a winter that was tailor-made with a need to hibernate, this has been it.
“Sleep in the winter is probably better secondary to the reduced amount of sunlight,” Winter told me. “That and the earlier loss of light and the colder temperature, facilitates sleep,” he added.
In fact, Winter believes light, or rather the lack of it, plays the biggest role in making us sleepy earlier in the day. “In terms of light,” he says, “it tends to block the secretion of melatonin, which is sleep promoting. The earlier loss of sunlight usually gets people prepped for sleep earlier.”
Temperature also plays a significant part in our sleep. “With cooler temperatures, we find that humans tend to sleep better (bedrooms should be kept at 62-67 degrees) versus hot temperatures during the summer months,” Winter says.
I obviously agree with the good doctor. It has been a sheer joy to be sandwiched between flannel sheets and cotton blankets, all warmed at body temperature, as I’ve listened in the dark to this year’s winds and sleety snows smacking against window glass. We tend to keep our house frugally cool in the winter anyway — not a hard task this year at all — so perhaps the extraordinary cold of the now infamous “arctic vortex” has driven me to bunk and pillow more than usual.
At least three times a day this winter, I trudge my way to the barn to check on our aging recluse of a cat, Max. For weeks now, I have rarely caught him out of his bed, one that I bolstered with straw and a generous dose of heat from a dangling lamp, wired from a rafter above him. Max sometimes sleeps through my visits, getting out of the sack only when he is hungry for the canned food and warm water I deliver to him. He often looks up at me, squinting and grinning in the garish light of the lamp, pleased that he has such a comfortable spot in which to hole up until the real sun induces him to tan on our back deck. There is little doubt in my mind that he is sleeping at least 20 hours a day.
Dr. Winter tells me that melatonin levels affect animals, too, but often not for the good. Nocturnal animals, like raccoons, are stimulated to move around at night, which might explain why Max’s food bowls are raided by some bandit while he gleefully dreams of slow-moving mice and pre-neutered heydays. The deer are also active; Joanie and I often see hungry bands of them, 20 or more, scrounging in the cornfields near our house, and not once have we passed by and not wondered at their ability to stand the blue crystal cold of sub-zero temperatures.
The sun is shining and the temperature has climbed to nearly 40 degrees as I sit at my window to write this. But the weatherman tells us that this thug of a winter is coming back to the neighborhood this week; within a few days we are to see a mean-spirited wind come calling in great shin-kicking gusts. Snow will apparently be joining the party, too, as will another spell of nose-numbing cold.
I still have to go to work, but like Max, I imagine that it would be better to just sleep in.
Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Go to his website at www.mike lunsford.com to learn more about his books. Look for the sixth installment of Mike’s “A New England Journal” in the Feb. 16 Tribune-Star.