Even with all the modern advances in medical science, it can be useful to still take a look at the health practices of humanity throughout the ages. The environment that we all live in is a far different world than the one we evolved to function in, and our brains and bodies may not have fully caught up to the realities of everyday life.
Sleep has been deeply impacted by the modern way of life. More than half of all adults experience sleep problems, and the percentage is even higher among older adults. Sleep scientists say that the modern lifestyle often works against the natural sleep and wake cycles of our brains, and the past two years have given them a unique opportunity to learn more about it. Studies showed that the people who could work remotely during the pandemic were often able to adjust their work schedules to their personal sleep cycles and, as a result, were more productive because of it.
This trend was especially notable among night owls, or those who prefer to go to bed and also get up later. Night owls are most frequently at a disadvantage in our 9 to 5 world, so you may wonder why some people prefer this sleeping schedule. Sleep experts believe this was an evolutionary adaptation, where night owls would keep watch on things over the night, and then the early risers would come and relieve them once they woke up. These different sleep patterns would work in harmony to keep ancient flocks and villages safe, but with modern humans and modern society changing the structure of the world, these patterns are not so easily forgotten and it can be a challenge to overcome biology.
Evolutionary biologists offer the “poorly sleeping grandparent” hypothesis to theorize that older adults tend to be lighter sleepers because if allowed them to be watchful while hunters slept. The mismatched sleeping schedules and restless nights may be an evolutionary artifact from the days when a lion might be lurking in the shadows in the middle of the night.
Before the industrial revolution where work started to be done in shifts and artificial light dominated cities, people didn’t necessarily sleep in a block of eight continuous hours. Europeans would go to bed as soon as darkness fell and sleep for a few hours. This was known as first sleep. Then around midnight, they’d wake and do some socializing, praying, maybe some work, and then engage in second sleep, which lasted until dawn. While going back to the pre-industrial sleeping schedule is unrealistic for most of us, many of us still wake up in the middle of the night. Sleep experts say worrying about the period of wakefulness in the middle of the night may end up keeping you awake inadvertently. Instead, just try and enjoy a moment of peace and quiet contemplation in bed and drift off back to sleep gently. If you find yourself awake for much longer, however, try engaging in a relaxing activity like reading or stretching until you feel sleepy again.