Trouble Sleeping? The Solution Could Lie in Our Ancestors' Lifestyle and Taking Rests Like a Caveman

     

We live our lives at a frenetic pace these days, with technology leading us all the way – there’s rarely a moment without email, Twitter, text or a phone call to nudge us onto the next task.

All this rush can be exciting, if at times stressful, but far more insidious is the effect it has on your sleep.

For, according to a new book, our inability to unwind during the day is a major cause of insomnia. That’s because the brain is denied the short, regular periods of rest it needs – leading to an over-active mind that refuses to switch off at night.

As the author of Tired But Wired: How To Overcome Your Sleep Problems, Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, explains: ‘We live in a high pressure, fast-moving world driven by the wonders of technology.

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‘But the struggle to keep up can find us reaching for caffeine and energy drinks – anything that will help us to fuel the manic need to do more in less time.

‘We rarely allow ourselves to go "offline". At night we crawl into bed desperate to rest and find we just can’t relax because the information overload in our brains has created a "buzz" it can’t switch off.’

Dr Ramlakhan, a sleep therapist and former insomniac, has described this phenomenon as ‘tired but wired’.

The problem is universal, she says – as a clinician she treats everyone from City executives to over-stretched mothers, teachers and school children.

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And the best way to tackle this form of insomnia is not with the usual advice – warm drink, hot bath, darkened room, and possibly sleeping pills.

Dr Ramlakhan recommends taking a break every 90 minutes to daydream, walk about, or, more controversially, nap.

This goes against conventional wisdom because most experts believe if you have a sleep problem you should resist the urge to nap, to ensure you’re tired enough to sleep properly at night.

Dr Ramlakhan devised this approach after suffering from ‘brain overload’ for many years. ‘I was a rather hyperactive child and a real bookworm,’ she says.

‘I’d get so caught up in what I was doing or reading I often found I couldn’t switch off my brain at night.’

At university (where she studied physiology and psychology) her problem intensified: ‘Because life was so full-on during the day and the sensory stimulation was intensified by noise, alcohol and caffeine, I would go for days with hardly any sleep at all. This pattern continued for the next 15 years.’

But now she sleeps ‘brilliantly’ and can even sleep on trains, planes and in cars – ‘something I once found impossible’.

‘The key has been building a little rest – and brain downtime – into my day.’

WHY WE NEED DAYTIME BREAKS

Our ancient ancestors are to blame, says Dr Ramlakhan. They were programmed to rest at regular intervals throughout the day rather than sleep for eight hours every night.

‘Passing out for hours at a time may not have been conducive to our safety and survival, so throughout the day we rested in short phases, whenever we could, to build our energy for hunting and gathering and to maintain our wellbeing. Rest became a substitute for sleep.’

These days it is widely accepted that human sleep patterns are governed by the ‘circadian rhythm’ – the 24-hour cycle of being awake and active and then, when it becomes dark, resting and sleepy.

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May 22, 2010