Have you ever thought about how our sleep has changed compared to our ancestors? Well that’s what we’re going to be exploring for the last part of the Sleep Awareness Week blog series. 

We touched on some of the biological reasons why we sleep in Sleep Health Some Basics, summarizing the stages of the sleep-wake cycle. Quick recap sleep allows our:

– muscles and tissue to recover and repair
– immune system is activated and on a cellular level begins to modulate immune defense against infecting pathogens
– brain to grow and develop; through improving cognitive function, consolidating memories, improving creativity, improving problem solving and regulating emotions.

The mechanism that allows our body to do this is the circadian rhythm which is governed by multiple factors such as darkness, brightness, environment, genetics, hormones, and medications.

Well these biological functions have been a part of our gene expression and the homeostasis of our bodies since the age of man, caveman, paleolithic times. Science tells us that multiple genes play a significant role in our sleep and the neurotransmitter production for circadian rhythm and time of sleep. What this tells us is that according to our chronotype we could be early risers; “Morning Larks” or late night people; “Night Owls” because of our ancestors. Most people usually have a fair indication of whether or not they are larks or owls, however this is also largely influenced by their lifestyle and environment, which brings me to the evolution of sleep.

Back in caveman days people would wake and sleep with the sun, especially the young kids and the elder adults. Whereas the teens and young adults were left to guard the group from predators. The only other factors for circadian rhythm influence being the moon and seasonal temperature. Fast forward to today, we know that the first day 10 years of our lives we tend to be larks, then move into owl habits as young adults, and then as work/life schedule comes into play we switch back to larks and require less sleep as we age. The difference being that from birth we are stimulating our brains with light from homes, traffic, screens and technology, our work hours dictate our wake time and city life is 24/7. Ever notice that you sleep better when you’re camping out under the stars, away from it all.

Well this is why everyone is raving about sleep hygiene, meditation and reducing screen time. Eye masks, ear plugs, block out blinds, and blue light blocking glasses, all of these sleep hygiene products just for the reduction of stimulating lights from our modern lives. While we can’t change our modern day living, we can alter our small habits and use the knowledge of our chronotype to help increase productivity. Lark or owl, you can schedule your life to peak physical and mental performance. The down side to this is that some modern day professions such as rotating shift workers, means that we are required to compromise our physical and mental health by working outside our biological sleep time. 

Supporting every body system to the best of its ability, knowing your physical and mental limits, and acknowledging when you need help, is the best way to move forward if you are working against your biological clock.