Sleeping habits vary little between cultures - study

Fell into profound sleep

With the trappings of modern life and the myriad commitments we make it might seem we don't get enough sleep, but modern humans get around the same as hunter-gatherer societies.

Those living simpler lives in remote parts of the world actually don't get as much kip as you'd imagine, according to new research from the US.

The results of the UCLA Centre for Sleep Research study has been published in Current Biology today.

It studied the Hadza of Tanzania, the San of Namibia, and the Tsimane of Bolivia to get a sense of sleeping patterns before the modern era.

How they sleep appears to put paid to the idea modern humans get less sleep.

Sleeping habits of 94 people were collected over 1165 days and found they slept a little under 6.5 hours a night on average, didn't take regular naps and didn't go to sleep immediately after the sun set.

The paper's author Jerome Siegel says those patterns don't differ much from those who live in cities although those in the study did often wake up before sun rise.

"The short sleep in these populations challenges the belief that sleep has been greatly reduced in the 'modern world'.

"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," Dr Siegel says.

There was a "surprising" similarity in sleeping patterns across the three groups of people, which Dr Siegel believes suggests is probably characteristic of how pre-modern ear homo sapiens slept. 

Time spent asleep averaged between 5.7 and 7.1 hours, with between 6.9 and 8.5 hours between the beginning and end of the sleep period.

Bed time differed with the seasons, with the hunter-gatherers sleeping an hour more in winter compared to summer.

Though they didn't have electric lights, none of the groups went to sleep when the sun went down and on average, they stayed up around three hours after sunset.

The time they go to bed appears to have more to do with temperature than the amount of light – the groups went to sleep as the mercury dropped and slept through the coldest part of the night.

However, there is one major difference between the groups and their more modern counterparts in that very few suffer from chronic insomnia, which is a common complaint in the US.

The disorder affects more than 20 percent of the US population, and Dr Siegel believes copying some aspects of the hunter-gatherers' natural environment could be effective in treating modern sleeping disorders.

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