We can blame smartphone alerts, constant connectivity and a deluge of media for sleep deprivation but that is talking about the symptoms rather than the disease. The root cause is instead the thing that has led to cultural and social improvements for over 100 years - artificial light.
It is no secret that cheap energy is one of the great enablers of advanced culture. WIth cheaper energy we get more education, more wealth, more culture, and lower populations. That is why efforts to make energy more expensive, chasing the dream of lower emissions with subsidies and mandates for alternatives, are resisted by so many who do not want society to go backwards.
But if sleep is the most important thing, going backwards is what may help. A paper comparing traditional hunter-gatherer living conditions to a more modern setting shows that access to artificial light and electricity has shortened the amount of sleep humans get each night.
"Everything we found feeds what we had predicted from laboratory or intervention studies, where researchers manipulate certain aspects of light exposure. But this is the first time we've seen this hold true in a natural setting," said lead author Horacio de la Iglesia, a University of Washington biology professor.
The researchers compared two traditionally hunter-gatherer communities that have almost identical ethnic and sociocultural backgrounds, but differ in one key aspect - access to electricity. They wanted to see if, all other factors aside, electricity would impact people's sleep during an average week in both the summer and winter.
They found this rare scenario in northeastern Argentina, with two Toba/Qom indigenous communities living about 50 kilometers (31 miles) apart. The first has 24-hour free access to electricity and can turn on lights at any time, while the second has no electricity, relying only on natural light.
In their usual daily routines, the community with electricity slept about an hour less than their counterparts with no electricity. These shorter nights were mostly due to people who had the option to turn on lights and go to bed later, the researchers found. Both communities slept longer in the winter and for fewer hours in the summer.
Though this study took place from 2012 to 2013, the sleep-pattern differences observed between the communities can be seen as an example of how our ancestors likely adapted their sleep behaviors as livelihoods changed and electricity became available, de la Iglesia said.
"In a way, this study presents a proxy of what happened to humanity as we moved from hunting and gathering to agriculture and eventually to our industrialized society," he said. "All the effects we found are probably an underestimation of what we would see in highly industrialized societies where our access to electricity has tremendously disrupted our sleep."
The researchers visited each community for a week during the summer and winter, placing bracelets onto the wrist of each study participant to monitor activity. The devices can track slight changes in movement, so a still wrist for a longer time implies that a person is sleeping.
Participants also kept sleep diaries during the study period, where they recorded what times they went to bed and woke up, as well as any naps throughout the day. This information mainly was used to corroborate data collected from the wristbands.
Even in sub-tropical Argentina, where the differences between summer and winter daylight hours vary about two and a half hours at most, study participants naturally slept longer in the winter. In a high-latitude place like Seattle, that daylight difference is close to eight hours between summer and winter.
These findings suggest there's a biological driver in humans that requires more sleep in the darker winter months.
"We tend to think we're isolated from seasonal effects even though we know this is the case for many animals," de la Iglesia said. "I think it's still embedded in our biology even when we do as much as we can to obscure that difference between summer and winter."
Past research has shown that artificial light can disrupt our circadian clock and sleep-wake cycle, effectively pushing them back when we turn on the lights in the evening. The researchers have documented this from their observation study, and they plan to look next at whether the later sleep onset and reduced sleep in the community with electricity is due to a shift in the biological clock by measuring melatonin levels in the two communities.
Published in Biological Rhythms. Co-authors are Claudia Valeggia and Eduardo Fernández-Duque at Yale University; Diego Golombek at Universidad Nacional de Quilmes in Argentina; Norberto Lanza at Instituto de Investigaciones Geohistóricas in Argentina; and Jeanne Duffy and Charles Czeisler of the Division of Sleep Medicine, Brigham and Women's Hospital. The research was funded by the Leakey Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.