How to Sleep Better at Night Naturally

How To Be A Natural Born Sleeper

Sleep is not always ready when we are, even if we might be overtired and desperately need some shuteye. We’re all bound, now and then, to have an ‘off’ night. And there may be a perfectly good reason for it. Generally, our best bet to enjoy consistently good sleep – like a champion – is to stick to healthy sleep hygiene, a day-and-night routine that helps us go to sleep naturally and peacefully.

But, here’s the thing. For many people, it is not a sleep disorder at the root of their sleep problems, but rather disordered sleep. This can be an unfortunate side effect of our modern life, especially as it relates to technology, which is not always conducive to good quality sleep. These days we are absolutely gadget and device dependent. We crave always-on communication, information and entertainment. And it’s playing havoc with what should be our natural circadian rhythm, our natural body clock sleep routine.

Did ancient humans sleep better?

Let’s take a look at a relatively recent study undertaken by Dr Jerome M. Siegel, a neurobiologist with the University of California Los Angeles. Dr Siegel and team studied sleep routines amongst more remote communities, notably the Hazda and San people in Africa and the Tsimane in Bolivia*. The aim was to see how these communities managed their sleep routines, as opposed to today’s multi-wired city slicker.

Here are the amazingly plain and simple differences:

  1. These remote communities hardly ever nap.
  2. They don’t consciously keep to a sleep schedule. They sleep and wake as their bodies decide and this shifted slightly between seasons (in this case bedtime seemed closely linked to a drop in temperature).
  3. On average, most would retire around 3 hours and 20 minutes after sunset.
  4. And they wake just before sunrise. In fact, the study suggests that sleep may also be naturally induced by exposure to temperature cycles, and not just light.
  5. This would seem to make sense as these communities typically sleep outside or in moderate huts.
  6. Very few individuals report sleep disturbances during the night.
  7. Insomnia is a rare experience. In fact, there is no word for insomnia in the languages of all three communities.

Without the influence of artificial light or temperature-controlled environments, their sleep shifted with the seasons. Their body mass index (or BMI) was within the normal range and the prevalence of reported sleep problems was also much lower than in the global population. Collectively, this, together with what we know from previous research about shift work, suggests that there is value in sleeping in sync with our environment and the light-dark cycle.

Clearly, there are some lessons here for the modern-night sleeper.

The modern approach to natural sleep

The noise. The lights. The distractions. The fragmentation. The disconnection from our minds and bodies. On the whole, we don’t really afford ourselves the best opportunities for what might be considered natural sleep. We need to be more consciously aware of the environments to which we’re exposed when approaching our ideal bedtime.

As a modern-day contrast, if you’ve ever enjoyed a 4- or 5-day hike with family and friends, you may have noticed how much earlier you’re likely to retire once the sun has set. Once you’re done with the cooking and the fireside chats, you’ll likely head off to your tent or cabin sooner than later. And even the later sleepers may find themselves waking to enjoy a dramatic sunrise. Again, it all points to “switching off” from the city and “tuning back in” to your natural body rhythms and the rhythms of your environment.

Essentially, a modern approach to sleep hygiene needs to “switch off” the blur of the city and “tune back in” to the self.

Ways of finding natural sleep, every night

There’s no need to light fires, let alone sleep outside. But there are several, purposeful ways to approach healthy, quality sleep each night if we wish to regain the deep sleep and, hopefully, sweet dreams of our ancestors.

We’ll put this into a simple context of the modern, urban lifestyle.

1. Nutrition and exercise

While we now have access to food 24/7, our hunter-gatherer forebears would have had much more limited options. While there are obvious benefits to this food availability, we could stand to take one important lesson from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle: meal timing. Hunter-gatherers were unlikely to be wandering around after sunset to look for food and this aligns perfectly with our body’s natural rhythms (our circadian rhythms). Our bodies are primed to be active, alert and eating during the day, while at night our bodies are anticipating and preparing for sleep. Not only are we better equipped to use the food we consume during the day, but meals are also an important entraining signal to our body. This means meals help to align our circadian rhythms with the environment, with meals basically telling our body that it is time to be awake. With all this in mind, it would be wise to try and eat our meals earlier in the day and leave a couple of hours between dinner and bed.

Hunter-gatherers needed to be active if they wanted to eat. Their lifestyle and lifespan depended on dexterous mobility. Likewise, we would do well, at least, to approximate this daily physical exertion. Over and above all the general health benefits, exercise has been associated with numerous sleep-related benefits, increasing the duration and quality of sleep. It is also another signal reinforcing our circadian rhythm and creating a robust contrast between day (when we are active) and night (when we are more calm, quiet and ready for sleep). And, like our forebears, preferably don’t hit the “gym” too late after dark. You want to be ratcheting down your noisy, distracted, fragmented day. So again, try to leave a couple of hours between exercising and bedtime. This brings us to the next approach.

2. Sleep preparation

If you really want to put your smartphone diary to good use, schedule your sleep time. Seriously. Your “meeting” with good, deep sleep is as important (if not salient) to your daily productivity. Set your device to a shut-down time. Usually, a half hour to an hour would do, depending on family logistics of getting kids to bed or quietening down the home space. Dampen the lighting. Find a spot to relax and calm your thoughts. Mentally disconnect from work – that high-priority email or urgent call can most likely wait until tomorrow. Switch off the TV news or your latest binge series. Chat quietly, listen to soothing music, or read under a dull lamp. Then, when you're feeling a little droopy, head for bed.

3. The physical sleep environment

This is something our ancient forebears would have been naturally attuned to. They had no underfloor heating, electric blankets or air-conditioning. As the seasons followed, so were they naturally acclimatised to longer nights and shorter days, or vice versa.

Sleeping was likely a natural, uninhibited activity, passively embraced without a second thought. By contrast, today we are more likely to struggle with trying to control every aspect of sleep, including the right conditions and environment for meaningful sleep. Too much awareness and stress about sleep can ironically make good sleep more challenging to achieve. That being said, for optimal sleep, aim for a sleep environment that is cool, dark and quiet. Use your temperature controls to mimic the ideal bedroom temperature, whatever the season. Slightly cooler is usually better. Be mindful neither to overheat a bedroom in winter, nor make it too frigid in summer. A sleeping body temperature rises and falls with the natural sleep cycles during the night. Experiment each night to find your perfect state of “coolly” calculated sleep.

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TAKE CARE: Lifestyle recommendation is not medical advice. Always consult your healthcare professional should you be experiencing prolonged sleep difficulties or related health issues. *For further reference see CNN's "Our Ancient Ancestors May Have Slept Better Than You, But Less." – 23 June 2017.