The tale of an ancient insomniac…

THERE’S nothing like a new report on insomnia to wake me up in the morning. But first here is a helpful quotation from the comedian and actor W.C. Fields: “The best cure for insomnia is to get a lot of sleep.”

Ah, sleep. I have duvet-wrestling form on this. But is it insomnia or restlessness or a sheet-tangle of both? A question to ponder as you lie awake at odd hours. This week 1.30am has been my wake-up time. The pattern goes like this: fall asleep easily, wake up, thrash about a bit, fill the mind with worms of gloomy doubt, decamp to a different bed, read for a while, and then sleep again.

And so it goes, night after night. I am more or less used to this tired template. Sometimes the night is tender, mostly it is not, but the day comes around again. And sometimes the day contains a sofa nap.

New research reported on this morning takes an interesting angle on insomnia. It has long been suggested that modern life is to blame, what with its new-fangled light bulbs and the like. This theory has it that we should sleep when it is dark and be awake when it is light. But this new research suggests that those pesky lightbulbs, TV, the internet and smartphones have not harmed our sleeping patterns.

According to a report in the journal Current Biology, US scientists wanted to study how well our ancient ancestors slept. This task presented the obvious problem of not being able to go back and interview ancient insomniacs (maybe I’ll be one of those one day).

The researchers got round this by instead studying three hunter-gatherer and hunter-horticulturalist societies in Africa and Bolivia. Incidentally, I suspect I may have married one of those hunter-horticulturalists.

Far from going to bed at dusk and rising with dawn’s first fart, the people in the study stayed up for hours after sunset and had no more sleep than those in the industrialised world. None of the subjects had access to electricity and a fire provided their only source of light.

Jerome Siegel, professor psychiatry at the University of California in Los Angeles, says the findings suggest we don’t really sleep all that differently to our ancient ancestors. Siegel found that none of his subjects went to sleep when the sun went down (perhaps they wanted to see if they was anything good on the fire that night). Instead they stayed up for up to three hours longer.

“They are up for a good two hours after it is as dark as it ever gets,” Siegel says.

What’s more his subjects slept for an average of nearly six and a half hours. A workaday modern night’s sleep then.

Siegel’s research has led him to suspect that we might have unrealistic expectations of sleep – something which could be harmful. “If you go to your GP and say, ‘Doctor I really think I should sleep more’, they’ll give you whatever the last sleeping pill rep who was in their office was handing out.” So what might be a natural problem ends up being controlled by unnatural and potentially addictive pills.

In all my sleepless years, I have kept away from pills and their ills. I tried whisky once or twice – a lot more pleasant, but a slippery answer. Whisky should be an occasional treat, not a prop to a good night’s sleep. Anyway the whisky didn’t work so the stopper now stays in the bottle.

A professor of sleep was on hand in one of today’s reports, suggesting caution about Professor Siegel’s findings. But they make sense to this member of the inconveniently wide-awake club.

Another interesting theory was that the sleep patterns of those in Siegel’s groups were connected to natural cycles. The subjects fell asleep as temperatures began to fall and woke in the chill before sunrise. Siegel next wants to test whether sleeping in a room that gets steadily cooler would help people who struggle to get to sleep.

Sounds good to me, although it might involve too much clambering in and out of bed, opening and shutting of windows, and bumping into things.

And then there’s the traffic noise…


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