When you start to think that you’re getting enough Zzzs, do you start to wonder how much did our ancestors sleep? Given all the attention the importance of sleep gets and all the distractions in modern society, you probably assume the answer is a lot — or at least more than your average person today.
After all, it’s been pounded into our heads over and over again: You need a good night’s sleep, ideally eight to 10 hours. If you can’t sleep that much on a nightly basis — and many people probably ask, “Who can?” — it wouldn’t be surprising if you think you’re neglecting your body’s natural timeline.
Well, rest easy if you get less than the recommended nightly average. According to research published this fall in Current Biology, our ancestors, contrary to popular belief, also averaged less than the 8–10 hours we always hear so much about. (1)
So, How Much Did Our Ancestors Sleep?
The UCLA-led team that comprised researchers from Hunter College, Yale University, UC Santa Barbara, the University of New Mexico and, of course, UCLA found that people who currently have lifestyles very similar to those of our evolutionary ancestors sleep an average of less than 6.5 hours a night. Not only that, but these people stay up an average of three hours and 20 minutes after sunset and rarely nap — that includes rarely taking a power nap. (2)
In the study, researchers clocked sleep patterns among the Hadza of Tanzania, hunter-gatherers who live near the Serengeti National Park; San of Namibia, hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari Desert; and Tsimane of Bolivia, hunter-horticulturalists who live along the Andean foothills. What they found was that these peoples, all of whom closely resemble the lifestyles of our early ancestors, sleep less than seven hours a night — six hours and 25 minutes on average, to be exact. That’s actually on the low end of the spectrum for adults in Europe and America today!
Jerome Siegel, leader of the research team and professor of psychiatry at UCLA’s Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behavior — who also is a past president of the Sleep Research Society — began the study two years ago, measuring sleeping and waking time, light exposure, body temperature, and temperature in the environment.
What he found was indeed surprising. In addition to less sleep than we imagined, these people not only rarely took naps, but these sleep patterns showed no evidence of taking a negative toll on people’s health. In fact, the people studied have lower levels of obesity, blood pressure and atherosclerosis than people in industrialized societies, along with higher levels of physical fitness.
In addition, “insomnia was so rare among those studied that the San and the Tsimane do not have a word for the disorder, which affects more than 20 percent of Americans.”
Sleep temperature may play a role in this natural treatment for insomnia, so to speak. The study found that these people consistently slept during the nightly period of declining ambient temperature and awoke when temperatures hit the lowest point in the 24-hour period. “The pattern resulted in roughly the same wake-up time each morning, a habit long recommended for treating sleep disorders,” according to the authors.
All three groups also receive their maximal light exposure in the morning, which suggests that morning light may have the most important role in regulating mood and the brain’s internal clock.
“There’s this expectation that we should all be sleeping eight or nine hours a night and that if you took away modern technology people would be sleeping more,” said lead author Gandhi Yetish, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of New Mexico, who spent 10 months with the Tsimane. “But now for the first time we’re showing that’s not true.”
How to Get Better Sleep
While this data suggests we may not necessarily need eight to 10 hours of sleep every night, if you’re losing sleep and always tired, it’s still important to get a good night’s sleep. Of course, it’s a good idea to keep these new findings in mind, while also following the following steps (3):
- Set the right temperature to sleep as you’re cooling and wake at the coolest temperature
- Set the mood with dim lights
- Use essential oils that promote sleep, like lavender oil and chamomile oil
- Unwind your mind
- Skip sugar and carbs at night
- Fight that nomophobia (smart phone addiction) and keep electronics out of bed
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule
- Limit caffeine after noon
- Work out in the morning
- Journal before bed
- Eat melatonin foods
- Consume magnesium-rich foods and a magnesium supplement (4)
- Don’t count sheep! It doesn’t work
- Get sunshine
- Relax with a detox bath
- Drink chamomile tea
- Train with full-body exercise
- Buy a good mattress
Final Thoughts on Sleep
This new research shows that perhaps eight to 10 hours of sleep per night is not necessary. This is undoubtedly good news to those night owls who also happen to be early to rise — along with those who are just a little time-crunched.
However, that doesn’t mean you should simply decrease your sleep or try not to get that recommended eight to 10 hours if you can. Sleep is vitally important to your overall physical and mental health. It may even be the most important factor in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. So make sure you get consistent sleep by going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. It’s the best way to keep your circadian rhythm in check and make the most of your most important time of recovery!