Today’s lack of sleep is old snooze to primitives

Lack of Sleep...How does it affect us!?

Why do we blame it on others?


Modern life’s sleep troubles — the chronic bleary-eyed state that many of us live in — have long been blamed on our industrial society. The city lights, long work hours, commutes, caffeine, the Internet. When talking about the miserable state of our ability to get enough rest, sleep researchers have had a tendency to harken back to a simpler time when humans were able to fully recharge by sleeping and waking to the rhythms of the sun.

It turns out that may not be quite right. In fact, it now appears that our ancestors, too, may not have been getting the doctor-recommended eight hours of sleep.

In an intriguing study published last week in Current Biology, researchers traveled to remote corners of the planet to scrutinize the sleep patterns of some of the world’s last remaining hunter-gatherers — the Hadza of Tanzania, the San of Namibia and the Tsimane of Bolivia. Cut off from electricity, media and other distractions, these pre-industrial societies are thought to experience the same sort of natural sleep that ancient humans enjoyed more than 10,000 years ago.

Located in a woodland-savannah habitat 2 degrees south of the equator, the Hazda gather their wild foods each day. The San are not migratory but interact very little with surrounding villages and live as hunter-gatherers. The Tsimane, who live close to the Maniqui River, are hunter-horticulturalist.

Using Actiwatch-2 devices (a kind of a souped-up, medical-grade Fitbit for sleep), researchers recorded the sleeping habits of 94 of these tribespeople and ended up collecting data representing 1,165 days.

What they found was a striking uniformity in their sleep patterns despite their geographic isolation. On average, all three groups sleep a little less than 6½ hours a night, do not take naps and don’t go to sleep when it gets dark. Like many of us, the Hazda, San and Tsimane spent more than that in bed — from 6.9 to 8.5 hours — than actually sleeping. That computes to a sleep efficiency of between 81 to 86 percent, which is very similar to today’s industrial populations.

Jerome Siegel, director of the University of California at Los Angeles’ Center for Sleep Research, and his colleagues explained that this suggests that sleep may not be environmental or cultural, but “central to the physiology of humans” living in the tropical latitudes where our species evolved.

“The short sleep in these populations challenges the belief that sleep has been greatly reduced in the ‘modern world,’ ” Siegel said. “This has important implications for the idea that we need to take sleeping pills because sleep has been reduced from its ‘natural level’ by the widespread use of electricity, TV, the Internet and so on.”

The findings call into question the untold millions of dollars that have been spent on research that tries to get to the bottom of why “short” sleepers only get about six hours of sleep a night and the idea that lack of sleep may be a big reason why obesity, mood disorders, and other physical and mental ailments have surged in recent decades.

Our ideas about napping may need some revision, too.

Scientists have long documented that people have a tendency to “crash” in energy in the midafternoon, and some have speculated that it’s because we’ve managed to suppress some innate need for siesta. The new study provides evidence that this is unlikely.

The data from the San of Namibia, for instance, show no afternoon naps during 210 days of recording in the winter and 10 naps in 364 days in the summer. The findings were similar for the other two tribes, suggesting that napping isn’t really a common thing among hunter-gatherers either. At the high end, the researchers estimated that naps may have occurred on up to 7 percent of winter days and 22 percent of summer days.

The researchers noted that the devices they were using weren’t great at picking up naps of short durations, so it is possible that some of the study subjects were taking short power naps of less than 15 minutes.