From the Cave to the Bedroom: Should We Practice "Paleo Sleeping Habits"?

Stone Age people slept better than we do, say some researchers. To start with, they didn't bring electronic devices into the cave as they settled in for the night!

Cave painting with a laptop computer

Have you heard of the popular "paleo diet"? People on this diet are instructed to consume only nuts, berries, meat and other foods that their Stone Age ancestors would have eaten. When it comes to our health, though, sleeping is as important as eating. Maybe we should consider "paleo sleeping"—adopting sleep habits that don't disrupt our inborn sleep rhythms?

The National Center on Sleep Disorders Research reports that a third of American adults fail to get enough sleep. Insomnia seems to be an epidemic today. Sleep experts tell us part of the problem is that our lifestyles can work against the systems in our body that regulate our sleep/wake cycle.

Here are ways to overcome some of the modern challenges to good-quality sleep:

Take a nap. Did you know that until a few hundred years ago, people seldom slept in one block of eight hours or so? People in hot climates might wake up, work for a while, take a siesta during the warmest part of the day, and then return to work during the cooler twilight hours. Before the Industrial Revolution in the cooler European climates, reports Virginia Tech professor Roger Ekirch, people might go to bed for a few hours as soon as darkness fell—"first sleep," this was called. Then they would wake up around midnight for a while, perhaps socializing, praying or doing a little work, before "second sleep," which lasted until dawn. Though some people with sleep problems are advised against napping, many of us in the modern age could benefit from some daytime shuteye. Remember those "Blondie" cartoons featuring a furious Mr. Dithers rousing Dagwood Bumstead from a forbidden desktop snooze? Today, Dagwood's company might be following the lead of Proctor & Gamble, Google, Nike, NASA and other organizations that provide "nap rooms" where employees can take a short power nap.

Don't worry if you wake up. For most of us, there's no going back to the pre-Industrial "first sleep" and "second sleep" pattern. Yet many of us do wake up for a while in the middle of the night. If this is seriously disrupting your sleep, consult an expert. But some doctors suggest that worrying about this wakeful period can keep us awake longer and nudge us into middle-of-the-night fretting. Instead, they say, just enjoy that time of quiet rumination before you drift back off to sleep. And if you find yourself lying awake for longer than half an hour, it's better to get up and do some relaxing activity until you feel sleepy again.

Turn off those sleep-robbing devices. Today, our electronic gadgets might well be the biggest impediment to getting enough sleep! For decades, radios, TVs and personal computers have stimulated our minds to wakefulness, competing with our natural sleep cycle. And that was nothing compared to today's smartphones, tablet computers and backlit e-readers. These devices beam light right into our eyes—and we take them to bed with us! Dr. Charles Czeisler of Harvard Medical School participated in a survey on the effects of communications technologies and sleep, conducted by the National Sleep Foundation. He reported, "Light-emitting screens are in heavy use within the pivotal hour before sleep. Invasion of such alerting technologies into the bedroom may contribute to the high proportion of respondents who reported that they routinely get less sleep than they need." Banish your devices from the bedroom. Better yet, turn them off so they don't summon you from another room. At the least, change your settings so they only wake you for emergencies (and no, it's not an emergency when your phone sounds the alert that you've received a Facebook "like" or you've almost exceeded your data usage for the month). And if you use an e-reader, choose a model that is not backlit—or better yet, read a paper book.

Sleep in the dark. Scientists have found that even today, cultures who live without electricity tend to adhere to natural sleep patterns. Exposure to natural sunlight during the day helps us sleep better, but artificial light wreaks havoc on our sleep cycle. Dr. Czeisler explains, "Artificial light exposure between dusk and the time we go to bed at night suppresses release of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, enhances alertness and shifts circadian rhythms to a later hour—making it more difficult to fall asleep." Sleep experts recommend using low-wattage, incandescent lamps as you're winding down before bedtime. Eliminate light pollution in your sleeping area with light-blocking window coverings or a sleep mask. If your room has a night light for safety, position it so it doesn't shine into your eyes while you're lying down. That goes for your alarm clock, as well.

Keep it quiet. Nighttime was traditionally a time of silence, save for the breathing of our fellow humans and the chirping of insects. This may be why many people report that they sleep best when they are camping. Sleep scientists tell us that even when we're asleep, our brains react to sounds, disturbing our sleep slightly even if a noise doesn't wake us. If you can hear street noises, your neighbor's TV, barking dogs, a snoring partner or birds chirping, use earplugs or invest in a white noise machine to drown out the sleep-disrupting noises. An electric fan or humidifier also can provide adequate background noise. (You also can convert your smartphone into a sleep ally by downloading a white noise app.)

Keep your cool. Sleep experts tell us that we sleep best if the room is around 65 degrees. This has always been a challenge during periods of hot weather. But even in the dead of winter, our modern homes are often overheated to a degree that keeps us wakeful. Set your thermostat so that nighttime temperatures are cool enough that you can sleep under the covers comfortably. Add a room air conditioner or fan in the warm days of summer. Choose a mattress that doesn't trap heat. Cotton sheets and pajamas also help us stay cool. And put away your heavy down comforter in the summer.

Mind your medications. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 9 million Americans take prescription sleep medications. Millions more use over-the-counter products to help them fall asleep or stay asleep. Used properly and under the supervision of a doctor, these drugs can be of help. But sleep medications can disrupt our natural sleep cycle, sometimes severely. Talk to your doctor about the sleep medications you take. And don't forget to discuss what might be the most common sleeping aid: alcohol. University of Missouri experts report that 20 percent of us indulge in a "nightcap" to help us sleep. Our ancestors consumed alcoholic beverages, but today's spirits are far more potent than the beer and mead of yesteryear—and alcohol consumed too close to bedtime can interfere with the natural sleep mechanism of the brain.

Control your coffee drinking. Historians tell us that coffee drinking swept the world just as the Industrial Revolution forced people in cities out of their natural sleep and wake cycles. Some say, only half in jest, that without coffee to wake us up, modern factories never would have caught on! Coffee is a useful stimulant, and nutritionists tell us it contains healthful nutrients. But the caffeine in coffee notoriously keeps us awake if we consume it too close to bedtime—so switch to herb tea or water in the afternoon.

Get plenty of exercise. Numerous studies show that exercise improves the quality of our sleep. Our ancestors worked hard—getting enough exercise was not a problem for them! But today, many of us humans spend most of the day sitting down. Ask your doctor about an exercise program that's right for you. A good old-fashioned walk is a great choice. And here's a bonus of walking: According to research from the University of Illinois, spending time in the natural environment helps us sleep better. But working out is stimulating, so be sure to allow some downtime between exercise and bedtime. Think of our ancestors, who, done with their day's toil, settled in around the fire telling stories. Choose calm, soothing activities like reading or listening to soft music to help you transition into sleep.

Poor sleep weakens our immune system and leads to diabetes, heart disease, even dementia. If you are having trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor. You may be referred for a sleep evaluation to help identify and treat the problem. Practicing good "sleep hygiene" that supports the body's natural sleep patterns may be the first step.

The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns about your sleep. The National Sleep Foundation and the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research offer sleep information for consumers.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.