Do We Really Need a Full 8 Hours of Sleep?

Take a moment and picture life in ancient, pre-history days.

Our ancestors probably spent their days hunting game and gathering wild fruits and berries; and, they probably spent the evenings watching the sun set while warmly wrapped in the fur obtained from the animals they hunted.

Many people argue today that if we still lived like our ancient ancestors, we would get a much better night’s sleep.

New research, however, seems to prove these assertions and beliefs are quite misplaced and misinformed.

This is because this new research suggests that the advances of modernity and technology do not play any role in depriving us of decent sleep. This is regardless of world-changing inventions such as electricity, the internet, and smartphones.

This new research was carried out on three societies that are based on hunting, gathering and horticulture in selected countries in Africa as well as in Bolivia.

According to the findings, members of these societies actually stayed up till late into the night despite not having any access to electricity.

Simply stated, there was no difference between the duration of sleep they got and that of people in the more industrialized parts of the world.

These findings, which were published in the Current Biology Journal assert that the sleep patterns of our ancestors were not any different from the sleep patterns today. They further suggest that our obsession with the amount of sleep we get might actually be uncalled for!

According to Jerome Siegel, a psychiatry professor in the University of California, the belief that we sleep less than our ancestors is not accurate enough as the proper measurement of sleep only started half a century ago.

In 1894, an editorial highlighting the issue of sleep loss appeared on the British Medical Journal.

The editorial suggested that people lead a more quiet life free of anxiety and tension. However, few people follow this piece of valuable advice.

world map with tribe locations

Siegel attempted to go back in time by studying three societies which still follow a lifestyle similar to that of our ancient ancestors.

These three societies included; the Hadza (Tanzania), the San (Namibia) and the Tsimane (Bolivia).

In total, 94 people from these three communities were asked to wear wrist watches which were then used to record their sleep.

They were then tracked through durations of between 6 and 28 days through the different seasons. In total, the data collected covered 1,165 days.

tribal people in sleep study

Jerry Siegel with San people in the Kalahari Desert. UCLA.

The data confirmed that all the groups stayed up for as long as 3 hours and 20 minutes after nightfall. None of them slept at sundown!

What’s even more interesting is the fact that none of the groups slept for long. Most slept for 6 hours 25 minutes which is pretty much the same as the lower durations of sleep seen in people from Europe and US.

Only during the cold season, did members of these communities sleep an hour extra. According to one co-author of the study, Gandhi Yetish, these findings are proof that people would not be sleeping longer in the absence of technology.

Siegel attributes the sleeping patterns seen in these three societies to natural cycles. He notes that the members of these communities only slept when the temperatures started to fall and woke up at first light when these temperatures were at their lowest.

He believes that this connection between sleep and falling temperatures could be the key to helping people who struggle to sleep. He also cautions against having idealistic expectations about sleep.

Most doctors prescribe sleeping pills to patients experiencing sleeping problems which is potentially dangerous as many studies have linked these pills to shorter life spans. In the US alone, 56 million sleeping pills were prescribed to patients in 2008.

The director of Surrey Sleep Research Centre, Prof. Derk-Jan Dijk is of the notion that electricity is to blame for people not waking up at daybreak or before daybreak. He believes that if people used campfires instead of electricity, the situation would be different.

Electricity encourages people to stay up very late into the night therefore making it difficult for those affected to wake up in the morning. This tends to be quite harmful to the human body. In fact, research by Prof. Dijk ascertained that multiple nights of insufficient sleep interrupted the normal functioning of 700 genes hence affecting the immune system, metabolism and stress-response abilities of the body. Just how long these changes last remains unknown.

All the same, the sad truth is that there are people who actually have real problems when it comes to sleeping. Insomnia prevents these people from sleeping even when they really want to.

Whether pharmacology is the best solution for this problem or not is something that Prof. Dijk believes should be determined through research.


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