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Up At the Crack of Dawn? Your Prehistoric Watch Just Began...

September 11, 2017


How prehistoric life shaped modern sleep cycles

Why are teenagers such night owls and so cranky in the morning? Why do older people wake up at sparrow’s fart, even once they’ve retired? It turns out the answers to these questions may lie in the dark and stormy times that preceded modern-day life and shaped the deeply entrenched sleep/wake cycles we’ve inherited from our prehistoric ancestors.

Next time you're awake at the 'wrong time', take comfort in the fact that your body is simply following the rhythms your primitive ancestors adapted to ensure that their entire tribe wasn't wiped out by a cunning sabre tooth-toothed tiger while everyone was snoozing on the job. While the primitive roots of our sleep/wake cycles have long been postulated, it has been near impossible to study - up until recently all researchers had to go by were sleep studies done in labs, and these didn’t provide an evolutionarily relevant context.

Then they stumbled upon the Hadza tribe of Tanzania — hunter-gatherers who live in camps of approximately 30 people and face threats from predatory animals and rival tribes (i.e. as close as we'll get to a modern-day version of our ancestors' lifestyle). For the first time, sleep researchers were able to observe the sleep/wake cycle across the age spectrum in a near-primitive setting. Guess what? It turns out Hadza teenagers are also wakeful at night, and their elders also rise at the crack of dawn.

Dr David Samson PhD, a sleep researcher at Duke University, led the study and postulated that groups that display natural flexibility and variability in sleep patterns feature a 'sentinel' behaviour adaptation from our ancestral past. To ensure the safety of the group, at least one member of the tribe had to be wakeful at any given time to raise the alarm if a threat arose. Young people have superior night vision, which could account for their 'nighttime vigil', while older individuals are more sensitive to light and wake up as soon as the sun rises.

While scientific studies regarding the roots of our circadian rhythms and the implications of varying sleep/wake cycles across the population still require a lot of research, one thing is for sure - when humans go to sleep, we need to be comfortable to get optimal rest. Sleep may seem inactive, but plays a vital part in cell regeneration, memory retention, learning and more. Paving the way to restorative rest begins with finding a bed and mattress that suits your comfort levels and physical requirements. Take the time to do so, embrace your natural circadian rhythm and see what a difference it makes!


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