It has long been held as a logical truth that the perceived benefits of the modern world such as televisions, smart phones and an increasingly fast-paced lifestyle are proving harmful to natural sleep patterns. This is believed to be the cause of widespread sleep deprivation in modern society, with Americans sleeping an estimated two or three hours less today than they did before the advent of the Industrial Revolution, according to a report in The Seattle Times.
However, a new study shows results that show that the modern era may not be completely to blame for a lack of sleep. Apparently, Americans sleep just as much as groups of people from three hunter gather societies. These societies are free from electricity and the so-called sleep repellent ills of modern life, their lifestyles having remained almost completely unchanged for thousands of years. In addition to challenging the idea that aspects of our developed world are causing an epidemic of insomnia, this new information poses a problem for the theory that an average of seven hours of sleep each night are needed for good health.
The hunter gatherers of the Hadza and San tribes in Africa and the Tsimané people of South America tend to sleep even less than the average American, yet they do not suffer from obesity and chronic disease which have been linked to lack of sleep, among other things, by many studies.
The new study was published on Thursday in Current Biology, and it also shows that the hunter gatherer groups surveyed expend the same amount of energy each day as most Americans, meaning that higher levels of physical activity are not necessarily a factor in their relatively good health. Even in spite of the absence of modern medicine, people in these groups often live to be older than sixty years of age, with some living well into their eighties. Clearly, this data almost completely rules out their sleeping habits having a negative effect on their health.
According to CBS News, researches collected a total of 1,165 days worth of information about the hunter gatherer groups. The data collected showed striking similarities among all three groups, which was surprising due to their differences in genetics and environments. All three groups have similar patterns of sleep, which likely mirrored the sleeping patterns of humans who lived before the modern era.
There is this concern in the Western world that we need more sleep and that if you get less than seven hours you’re liable to suffer from obesity and diabetes and heart disease…But the average amount of sleep in these people was well under what is recommended to us as adequate sleep, and these were very healthy people who are not suffering chronic disease and insomnia.
The one glaring dissimilarity between the hunter gatherers and people living in industrial societies is the rate of insomnia. Only 1.5 to 2.5 percent of people in hunter gatherer societies experience insomnia more than one time a year. In fact, among the Tsimané, insomnia is so rarely experienced that there is no word for the disorder. On the other hand, between 10 and 30 percent of people living in industrial societies are victims of chronic insomnia.
Ultimately, researchers found that the lack of sleep among people in developed countries could have more to do with temperature than with artificial light. Hunter gatherers sleep one hour more in the winter than they do in the summer. A sleep researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, Jerome Siegel, offered a simple assessment of this data. “In natural conditions, humans sleep [more] during a period of declining temperature,” observed Siegel. “In contrast, in most modern settings, while we may turn the temperature down at night, it is not declining.”
Researchers concluded that based on their data, mimicking certain temporal aspects of the natural environment can do more to regulate the sleep of chronic insomniacs and those suffering from other sleeping disorders than sleeping pills or the reduction of artificial light sources.