When I was developing my UC Davis OLLI class, (Ancestral Actions for Healthy Aging), I focused on four lifestyle behaviors that contributed to our early ancestors’ survival success. They were how humans evolved to be physically active, to eat, to socialize, and to sleep. Anthropologists believe that the way our ancestors slept is uniquely human and could help modern humans to sleep better and live longer, healthier lives.

First off, the idea that many wellness pundits preach of getting 8 to 9 hours of sleep is a myth. Our ancestors averaged about 6 to 7 hours of sleep, compared to our closest primate relatives who average between 9 and14 hours. The reason that early humans slept less than, say, a chimpanzee, is because they spent about 10 percent more of their total sleep time in REM sleep, which is shorter, deeper and more efficient. Quality sleep is known to play an important role in our ability to think, learn, concentrate, and communicate, which makes us different from other animals. The quality, not the duration, of your sleep leads to better health and longevity.

How Americans Sleep Today

Couple sitting in bed using their mobile devices

If you slept for 8 hours or more but wake up feeling groggy or need a nap in the afternoon, it could be that the quality of your sleep is altered by your lifestyle habits. Caffeine, alcohol, or heavy meals close to bedtime can disrupt the quality of your sleep, making you feel less rested in the morning. Furthermore, being obese or having other health issues can put you at risk for inadequate sleep and a condition called apnea, a serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep.

Another reason why you might not be getting quality sleep and feel tired during the day is spending too much time indoors and being inactive most of the day staring at screens. “Constant exposure to devices like smartphones, personal computers, and television can severely affect mental health, increase stress and anxiety, and cause various sleep issues in both children and adults.

As a person ages, sleep can become less efficient and restorative. Unlike younger adults who spend more time in the deeper phases of sleep, including REM, older adults spend more time in lighter phases of sleep and may wake 15 times during the night and nap frequently during the day. Part of the reason is that older adults are often less active and may spend most of their waking hours indoors. They also wake up more frequently due to chronic pain, the need to urinate, or other health issues that cause issues like snoring or sleep apnea.

Learning From Our Ancestors to Sleep Better

Before TVs, cell phones, and video games, our ancestors’ sleep was regulated by being exposed to sunlight and other outdoor environmental stimuli, including all the physical activity they experienced during their day. For example, the Hazda (an indigenous tribe that lives on the savanna in Tanzania) wake up every morning usually before sunrise and partake in a number of outdoor activities. “About 20 hours per week is dedicated to hunting or gathering and another 10 to 20 hours to chores at the campsite, such as food processing and making or mending tools.” There are also periods of rest and socializing during the day, before going to bed about 3 hours after the sun goes down. During this 3-hour period, the body and brain have time to de-regulate (slow down) and get ready for sleep. This is our natural circadian rhythm.

Early humans also slept in much more complex sensory environments, usually outdoors in nature “with a fire nearby, listening to the sounds of outside world, and tolerating one another’s noises, movements, and occasional sexual activities”. Being safe from night time predators required at least one person awake and keeping watch. Scientists call this “the sentinel hypothesis.” The safety brought by sleeping in groups where someone was always guarding allowed hunter-gatherers to experience the advantage of deep, efficient REM sleep.

In terms of basic biological needs for survival, sleep is one of the most important elements. The long-term effects of poor quality sleep (sleep deprivation) can cause a myriad of health problems ranging from mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, to putting us at risk for chronic diseases, e.g. diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and dementia. The bottom line is a good night’s sleep can start when you wake up. Your lifestyle choices in the morning and throughout the day can impact how you sleep at night. Here are some tips for waking up in a way that promotes good quality sleep and health:

Length of daytime activity: Daily exposure to natural light (especially in the morning) and daytime activity help regulate sleep/wake cycles, which can improve your ability to sleep better at night. If our ancestors were getting an average of 6.5 hours of sleep a night, that means they typically had a wakeful activity period of around 17.5 hours a day. Your natural circadian rhythm is when your body feels awake when it’s light and asleep when it’s dark. This is why it’s important to disconnect from your digital devices a half hour or more before bedtime and remove them from your bedroom. Digital devices like smartphones, laptops and TVs emit an artificial blue light that mimics sunshine, which signals the body to wake up. Eliminating blue light from your bedroom will help reinforce the association between the bed and sleep.

Consistent sleep schedule: Rising at the same time every day is fundamental to sleep health. Going to bed at the same time isn’t as important. However, getting up early has been shown to assist in falling asleep easier at the other end of the day. Taking a short nap can also be beneficial if you’re feeling tired or low on energy during midday.