The only thing more worrisome than our lack of sleep is how stressed out we are by our lack of sleep. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, insufficient sleep is a public health problem. The agency goes so far as to link lack of sleep to health issues such as obesity, high blood pressure, depression and diabetes and even "motor vehicle crashes, industrial disasters, and medical and other occupational errors."
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It's no wonder we're worried about not sleeping the recommended eight hours each night. But a new study has found that maybe we don't really need as much sleep as we thought.
The modern theory on sleep deprivation is that healthy amounts of sleep went down the toilet along with the invention of the lightbulb. Once artificial light came along, people no longer listened to natural cues about when it was time for bed. Today's explosion of electronic gadgets and round-the-clock work schedules has exacerbated the problem.
But a new study published in the journal Current Biology took a look at the sleep patterns of three communities that serve as good examples of what life was like in the developed world before lights and distractions. Researchers evaluated the sleep habits of people in three tribes — the Hadza and San tribes in Africa, and the Tsimané people in South America — that currently live without electricity or any other modern electronic innovations that have been linked to poor sleep. And guess what? They sleep even fewer hours each night than most Americans, yet they don't suffer from any issues of obesity, diabetes or occupational errors.
Researchers found that the people in these hunter-gatherer communities were relatively fit and healthy. Even without lightbulbs to keep them awake, they stayed up three to four hours past sunset often with only a small community fire to provide light and warmth. On most days they rise at least an hour before the sun. On average, the members of these tribes sleep for about six and a half hours each night — less than the average American.
Perhaps most importantly, the members of these tribes were not stressed about sleep. Despite sleeping less than the amount recommended by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, they did not worry about their lack of sleep. And while chronic insomnia affects 20 percent to 30 percent of Americans, only 2 percent of the hunter-gatherers had trouble sleeping. The San and the Tsimané did not even have words for sleep problems in their languages.
The takeaway from the study is that we should all quit worrying about the numbers and focus on getting the amount of sleep we need to wake up feeling refreshed.