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Ancestral Clues to Better Sleep and Energy this Winter

By Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, MSc, CISSN, CSCS
November 18, 2015
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As we move into the colder, darker, and shorter days of fall and winter, it becomes more difficult to maintain your energy levels, productivity and fight off nasty colds and flu. These common complaints become the norm as the seasons change, and people are constantly looking for that "magic bullet" supplement or medication to keep them running on all cylinders. Interestingly, a new study on the daily patterns of modern hunter-gatherer tribes across the globe might hold a few clues in how we can keep ourselves healthy, fit, and productive through the winter season.

How Much Sleep Did Our Paleo Ancestors Really Get?

There is a romantic notion that our “hunter-gatherer” ancestors rested their heads with the setting sun in the evening, slept blissfully through the night for 8-10 hours, and woke up with the rising sun. They certainly didn’t have cellphones, laptops or external light sources to keep them up. Was it partly down to this that they were so fit, strong, and free of chronic degenerative diseases? Not quite.

An interesting new study on modern-day hunter-gatherer tribes – the San of southern Africa, the Tsimane in Bolivia, and the Hadza in Tanzania – found they only sleep an average of 5.7-7.1 hours per night.1 This is very surprising because sleep research today suggests most westerners are sleep deprived, averaging about 6.5 hours of sleep per night, which is approximately 1.0-1.5 hours less sleep than our grandparents got two generations ago. Experts believe we should be aiming for 7.5-8.0 hours per night for better health.

This new research suggests there is much more at play than simply the amount of hours of sleep you get (although, I believe this is also important). Let’s take a closer look at some key factors that could help you improve your sleep and upgrade your energy levels this winter and help fight off colds and flu.

The Tribes Go To Bed Earlier in the Winter

As the year comes to an end, most people are busier than ever at work and home as the holidays approach, rather than winding down to recharge their batteries. If we look to our ancestral roots to find answers to the "best" sleep practices, we find the tribes in the aforementioned study went to bed earlier during the darker days of winter/rainy season and later in the summer/dry season. Their average bedtime was just after 9:00 pm in the winter months, compared to 10:45 pm in the summer (still, not exactly "night owls" by today’s modern standard).
A lot of people struggle to get bed before midnight (laptops, cellphones and TVs don't help) and usually don't get to bed earlier in the colder, darker, winter months. As we approach the darkest days of the year, we should be getting more sleep (not less), but holiday parties, travel, and work commitments usually ramp up at this time of year. This lack of sleep is shown in the research to suppress your immune system function, putting you at significantly increased risk of catching a cold or flu.2

The Tribes Wake Up Consistently With Morning Light

Hitting snooze is a morning ritual for a lot of people, as they struggle to find the energy to get out of bed and start their day. While I am sure we can all agree that sleeping in feels pretty good, is it what your body really needs? The tribal groups in this study woke up at virtually the same time throughout the entire year with the morning sun (not surprising if you're an avid camper!).

Many of your key hormones are produced on a natural daily pattern or a circadian rhythm that new research shows get disrupted if you constantly change your sleeping and waking time. Disrupted circadian patterns have been shown to leave you more prone to fatigue (sound familiar?), inflammation, and even change the balance of “good” to “bad” bacteria in your gut.3

If you struggle with fatigue, insomnia or frequent colds and flus, aim to have a consistent bedtime and waking time this winter. Go to bed earlier (don’t sleep in longer in the mornings) to help kick your snooze button habit in the morning. If you really struggle to wake up, try some gentle stretching/mobility/yoga on the floor to ease your way into the day. (Not only that, but research shows the later you get to bed, the greater your likelihood for weight gain.4If weight loss is also a goal, get ahead of your new year’s resolution by tucking in earlier at night).

The Tribes Are Exposed To Lots of Morning Light

It’s difficult to wake in the morning and get outside during the cold days of winter. Fatigue, lack of time, and general desire to stay warm keep you huddled up in your house, car, and office. However, not exposing yourself to natural light may be having a significant negative impact on your health.

Modern hunter-gatherer communities get up daily with the morning sun and engage in the vast majority of their physical labor in the morning hours exposed to natural light. In contrast, most people are indoors all morning throughout the winter - commuting in cars and working in buildings - not getting nearly enough exposure to natural light. Even on a cloudy day, the natural light outside provides a whopping 100,000-lux (a measure of light intensity), compared to only 5,000-lux in your office or home.

New research shows that this light exposure is crucial for circadian hormone production and, thus, your energy levels, health, and resiliency.5 It’s easy to find yourself stuck in your car, office, or house all winter. Instead, get outside to grab your morning coffee, walk a few blocks to your next meeting, or go outdoors in the morning for a light run/jog to start your day. You'll feel much better for it!

Often we’re drawn to the “shiny new toy” or exotic and complex solutions to our problems. However, the real, lasting solutions are typically always found in how you eat, move and lifestyle factors. While a Paleo diet will go a long way to keeping you energized and fighting off colds and flu this winter (check out my article on how to Paleo boost your immunity this fall), looking at your daily patterns of sleeping and waking from an ancestral perspective. This will likely help you dramatically upgrade your energy and vitality this winter.

References

  1. Yetish G et al. Natural Sleep and Its Seasonal Variations in Three Pre-industrial Societies. Current Biology. Vol 25, Iss. 21, 2 November 2015, Pages 2862–2868.
  2. Prather A et al. Behaviorally Assessed Sleep and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. Sleep Journal. Vol. 38, Issue 09.
  3. Voigt R et al. Circadian disorganization alters intestinal microbiota. Plos One. 2014 May 21;9(5):e97500.
  4. Asarnow L et al. Possible link between bedtime and change in body mass index. Sleep Journal. Vol. 38, Issue 10.
  5. Czeisler C, Klerman E. Circadian and sleep-dependent regulation of hormone release in humans. Recent Prog Horm Res. 1999;54:97-130; discussion 130-2.

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