Usually when we read about how to get better sleep, or the importance of sleep, we get the same advice. If you want better sleep, go to bed and rise at roughly the same time every night/day, reserve the bed only for sleep or sex, stay away from screens at least two hours before bed, sleep in a very dark room, etc.
On top of that, there are various gizmos to help us with this. Masks, noise-blocking headphones, special mattresses with “sleep numbers,” special curtains, and of course sleep medications of all sorts.
Let’s scroll back to the hunter-gatherer days. Actually, there are hunter-gatherer tribes still active these days whose sleep-wake habits have been studied at length. Somehow these folks manage to sleep together, on the ground, around the fire, and average 5.7 – 7.1 hours of restorative sleep per night.
This is a picture of how much sleep we need if not subjected to modern distractions like devices, commutes, or self-medicating stress with alcohol (alcohol may make us sleepy, but it actually disrupts sleep as the effect on our neurotransmitters wears off).
We should also note that the hunter-gatherers are by and large physically active every day, far exceeding the recommended 150 minutes of moderate activity per week that is the byline these days.
Clearly, we modern Westernized humans have our challenges when it comes to sleep. You could say that we have even stepped away from thinking of sleep as natural and easy to do. Instead, we are plagued by insomnia, sleep apnea, chronic pain, leg cramps, restless leg syndrome, medication side effects, metabolic diseases, and declining levels of intrinsic melatonin. Ugh! No wonder!
Sleep is Natural and Universal
Let’s take a brief look at sleep in other living creatures. Ones who don’t have TV, jobs, schedules, electricity, and so on. This section is here to shed some light on what we know about sleep these days. Looking at the big picture can help us learn some useful things about sleep.
According to John Cline, PhD, psychologist and sleep expert, the amount of sleep needed is roughly correlated with body size and metabolism. This applies to most animals. Ferrets get 14.4 hours; cats 12.5 hours; dogs 10.1 hours; (although I would dispute that…my dog seemed to sleep a lot more than that!) whereas elephants, zebras, and giraffes get 3-4 hours of shut-eye in a 24-hour cycle.
Living things, including plants (and bacteria!), all pick up the daily circadian vibe. That’s because they have evolved to take advantage of light and darkness to do the basic activities of life. Nocturnal animals are that way because they are trying to avoid being eaten during the day.
Living things that also have a brain need to give that brain a chance to rejuvenate. That’s because they (we) need to use the benefit of memory to help cope with future events. We learn from events and mistakes so that next time we are better. This applies to survival or learning a new skill. On top of that, we all need sleep to rejuvenate the tissues in our bodies, keep our metabolisms on an even keel, and generally help us make healthy choices.
What Happens with Sleep Deprivation?
As we all know, being sleep deprived causes us to lose focus, forget things, get in a crummy mood, even get clumsy or injured.
On top of that, lack of sleep messes with our metabolism. Chronic sleep deprivation causes our bodies to produce more cortisol, a stress hormone that also increases inflammation, depresses our immune system, and signals our bodies to lay down more body fat. On top of that, lack of sleep disrupts the hormones that regulate appetite, causing us to be more hungry and make poor food choices.
Sleep and Exercise
While there are many ways to help get a good night’s sleep, some of which are mentioned above, there is one that stands out. To quote sleep expert, Dr. John Cline, “Increased physical activity seems to be especially effective in preventing insomnia.” And, “The importance of exercise and remaining as active as possible cannot be over emphasized.”
We modern humans, among all living creatures, are the ones that have the option of being active or not. All other creatures are pretty much forced to get active in order to survive. As a result of activity, their bodies will naturally rest, repair, and let their brains sort through the actions of the day as needed.
It appears that the most effective, natural, and simple (no gadgets or medications) way to sleep better is to make sure we are active. We still need to disengage from some modern habits that keep us awake, but staying active can help us to get a giant step closer to how the abundance of life around us regulates their sleep.
All the best
© 2021 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved
Photo Credit: Ljupco / iStock