When was the last time you woke up feeling refreshed, alive, and excited for the day ahead? Was it just this morning? Last week? Maybe a month or so ago? Or perhaps you cannot even remember the last time you felt that way? If you’re in the last camp, you’re certainly not alone. It’s been estimated that up to 70 million Americans have some kind of sleep disorder,1 ranging from chronic insomnia and sleep insufficiency to severe sleep apnea. Nearly a quarter of sleep-deprived adults report having difficulty with concentration, memory, and performance of regular work-related duties.2

The modern technological age, with its rapid-acting medicine, gleaming touchscreens, and 24/7 connectivity, definitely has its downsides. In the pursuit of better, cheaper, and faster, our nightly zzz’s have suffered a kind of collateral damage. The only real question is this: How much longer can we keep this up? At what point will the health-related repercussions of our collective sleeplessness catch up to us?

Sleep deprivation is nothing to take lightly, and even acute periods of poor sleep have been shown to cause significant physiological and psychological damage. People who regularly suffer poor-quality sleep show higher risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes,3 tend to catch cold and flu viruses more often (and more severe versions at that), and exhibit impaired brain function—especially in terms of reflexes, emotional regulation, and decision-making.  Additionally, chronic sleep debt has been linked to weight gain, slower wound-healing, depression, and higher rates of accidental death.4

Thankfully, we can look to the Paleo lifestyle for guidance. To be truly Paleo means looking at all the facets of human life in this modern era, and finding ways to counteract the detrimental effects of the evolutionary mismatch with ancestral wisdom. And when we think of sleep, and the fact that it is foundational to our health and vitality, it stands out as the perfect place to apply this primal mindset. 

While you now know what a Paleo food template looks like, how much do you really grasp what it means to “sleep like a caveman”? After all, sleep disorders are a relatively new phenomenon, something our ancestors may never have had to navigate. So what can we do to reclaim our innate ability to sleep soundly and wake up refreshed? If you want to get an awesome Paleo snooze tonight, just follow these seven steps, and you’ll soon be on your way to dreamland!

Steer clear of stimulants to get good sleep.

Researchers estimate that up to two-thirds of American adults drink coffee every day and up to 90 percent of the country uses some kind of caffeine or other stimulant. While these substances can be useful for increasing productivity, promoting wakefulness, and providing temporary energy, stimulants can seriously mess with your sleep quality. The half-life of caffeine, for example, is approximately five hours; this means that, of your 8 a.m., 100-milligram cup of joe, 50 mg of that is still hanging around at 1 p.m., and you likely still have 10 to 20 mg in your system at bedtime. Moreover, for the caffeine-sensitive, the half-life can be even longer. While caffeine is the most popular stimulant, other substances like nicotine, guarana, yerba maté, and ginseng can also cause disrupted sleep.6

Try it today: Give your body a break and try two to four weeks without stimulants. Or, if you simply must have something, cut yourself off around lunchtime and/or try some herbal tea. And definitely steer clear of synthetic energy drinks!

Take a timeout to get good sleep.

Most of us try to do too much in any given day. We take our work home with us, we pack our schedules as tightly as we can, and we overdo it with our social obligations. And this “go-go-go” mindset is seriously hurting our nightly rest. Our ancestors had an abundance of quiet time, whether they were walking through the forests, napping with their families, or contemplating the sunrise. Studies have shown that our brains need a certain amount of mindful silence in order to stay calm and focused,7 and we can incorporate this sacred time-out before we go to bed each night. Reducing the amount of stimulation we place on our nervous system can ease us into a restful headspace, making sleep a little easier.

Try it today: Each evening, turn off distractions and spend 20 to 30 minutes in quiet contemplation. Use this time-out to meditate, stretch, go for a leisurely walk, do some deep-breathing exercises, sit on your porch, or write in a journal.

How well (or how poorly) we sleep each night is largely determined by our neurochemistry. Each tiny fluctuation in hormones and neurotransmitters can dramatically change how efficiently we fall into la-la-land, when we wake up, and how many sleep cycles we can complete each night.8 Thanks to modern research medicine, we can “biohack” our circadian- and sleep-cycle rhythms using strategic supplementation, in addition to controlling environmental factors. One of the easiest things you can do is take supplemental melatonin, as well as compounds that offer relaxing properties, like the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, the amino acid L-theanine, and the mineral magnesium. Serotonin levels are also important for regulating sleep, and we can boost our intake of its precursor, tryptophan, with foods like eggs, turkey, salmon, nuts, and seeds.

Try it today: For stubborn insomnia that doesn’t respond to environmental improvements, consider supplementing with melatonin or other relaxing nutrients. In addition, try eating more primal-approved foods that support your body’s natural hormonal balance.

Just in the past few years, the body of research on the effects of blue light on our sleep patterns has exploded. There is enough evidence to firmly conclude that exposure to blue wavelengths of light, like those found in electronic devices, halts the release of melatonin in the brain.9 Melatonin is a critical hormone in regulating our circadian rhythm and gives our bodies the important signal to wind down and prepare for bed. Overuse of electronic screens before bed often results in difficulty falling asleep, sometimes known as “sleep-onset disorder.”

Try it today: Power down your electronics at least two hours before you wish to drift off to sleep. Or, if it’s absolutely necessary to be online, invest in a pair of blue-light-blocking glasses

Our primal relatives were savvy herbalists, utilizing plants and flowers in their habitat to elicit a variety of desired physiological effects. Just like we can hack our hormones, we can also put this plant-medicine knowledge to good use and incorporate herbs into our nighttime protocol. There are dozens of plants that are used to alleviate insomnia, and most tend to be quite safe (but of course, please talk with your doctor or qualified herbalist first). Because each plant contains a different blend of compounds, do your research on the species that may best support your unique type of insomnia. Whether you deal with aches and pains, racing thoughts, or overactive adrenal glands, there is a plant out there that can potentially help.10

Try it today: Explore the potential of plant medicines in your sleep routine. Experiment to find out what works best for you, and try out popular relaxing herbs like valerian, hops, passionflower, chamomile, ashwagandha, poppy, kava kava, lavender, lemon balm, and skullcap.

Make your room as dark as possible.

Our bodies have evolved to respond to certain environmental cues, to keep us in tune with the natural world. Stimuli like light, temperature, and sound can all affect our sleep quality,11 and it’s been shown that we humans tend to do better in spaces that are cool, dark, and relatively quiet.12,13 For those already struggling with insomnia, even a couple extra degrees of warmth or light can make a huge difference in their ability to fall and stay asleep, and wake up alert. Although we cannot always control every little factor in our environment, we can take inspiration from our early ancestors, and make our rooms as “cave-like” as possible.

Try it today: Invest in heavy, light-blocking curtains. Turn your thermostat down several degrees every evening, and/or consider leaving a window open. Try sleeping in the nude, to better regulate your body temperature. Minimize disruptive noises or use a white-noise machine to drown out sounds you can’t eliminate.

Embrace your natural sleep rhythm.

One of the things you’ll find missing from most “sleep hygiene” articles is the mention of biphasic or polyphasic sleep patterns. Today we’re told that sleeping soundly through each night for eight hours is the ideal, but the reality is much more complicated. You see, not all humans thrive sleeping in one big chunk; instead, we may naturally fall into a pattern of multiple sleep sessions over a 24-hour period.14,15 Biphasic sleep refers to two sleep sessions, typically a larger chunk at night and a midday nap. Polyphasic sleep refers to more than two sessions, usually seen with segmented nightly sessions or multiple naps. It’s important, from a Paleo perspective, to allow for these natural variations and not force ourselves to hunker down for a long sleep each night.

Try it today: Experiment with bi- or polyphasic sleep. Notice whether you naturally wake up from sleep at certain times and be willing to bend the conventional sleep rules. Be open to sleeping in smaller increments throughout the night and/or include naps, if these changes help you feel healthier and more alert.

When it comes to restorative shuteye, on the whole, we’re not getting enough of it. Sleep deprivation is a serious issue, one that the CDC and other health organizations are monitoring closely. But instead of pushing through fatigue and becoming caught in the downward spiral of sleepiness, stimulant use, and prescription hypnotics, we can choose to take a more primal approach. When we address all the internal and external factors at play, one by one, we can create a customized sleep strategy that encourages maximum health and longevity.

References

1. “Sleep and Sleep Disorder Statistics.” American Sleep Association. 15 July 2019.

2. “Data and Statistics: Short Sleep Duration Among U.S. Adults.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 15 July 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/data_statistics.html

3. Knutson KL, Spiegel K, Penev P, Van Cauter E. “The Metabolic Consequences of Sleep Deprivation.” Sleep Medicine Reviews. 2007 Jun;11(3):163-178. doi: 10.1016/j.smrv.2007.01.002

4. Durmer JS, Dinges DF. “Neurocognitive Consequences of Sleep Deprivation.” Semin Neurol. 2005;25(1):117-129.

5. Ogeil RP, Phillips JG. “Commonly Used Stimulants: Sleep Problems, Dependence and Psychological Distress.” Drug Alcohol Depend. 2015 Aug 1;153:145-51. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2015.05.036

6. Jabr F. “Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime.” Scientific American. 15 October 2013.

7. Siegel JM. “The Neurotransmitters of Sleep.” J Clin Psychiatry. 2004;65 Suppl 16:4-7.

8. West KE, Jablonski MR, Warfield B, Cecil KS, James M, et. al. “Blue Light From Light-emitting Diodes Elicits A Dose-dependent Suppression Of Melatonin In Humans.” J Appl Physiol (1985). 2011 Mar;110(3):619-26. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.01413.2009

9. Attele AS, Xie J, Yuan C. “Treatment of Insomnia: An Alternative Approach.” Altern Med Rev. 2000 Jun;5(3):249-59.

10. Pavlova M. “Circadian Rhythm Sleep-Wake Disorders.” Continuum (Minneap Minn). 2017 Aug;23(4, Sleep Neurology):1051-1063. doi: 10.1212/CON.0000000000000499

11. Gilbert SS, van den Heuvel CJ, Ferguson SA, Dawson D. “Thermoregulation as a Sleep Signalling System.” Sleep Med Rev. 2004 Apr;8(2):81-93. doi: 10.1016/S1087-0792(03)00023-6

12. Muzet A. “Environmental Noise, Sleep and Health.” Sleep Med Rev. 2007 Apr;11(2):135-42. doi: 10.1016/j.smrv.2006.09.001

13. Stampi C. “Evolution, Chronobiology, And Functions of Polyphasic and Ultrashort Sleep: Main Issues,” Why We Nap. Birkhäuser Boston, 1992.

14. Husband RW. “The Comparative Value of Continuous Versus Interrupted Sleep.” J Experim Psychol. 1935 Dec 18(6):792. doi: 10.1037/h0058747

15. Kunz D, Mahlberg R, Müller C, Tilmann A, Bes F. “Melatonin in Patients with Reduced REM Sleep Duration: Two Randomized Controlled Trials.” J Clin Endocrin Metab. 2004 Jan;89(1):128-134. doi: 10.1210/jc.2002-021057