If you woke up groggy and are currently wishing the blinding daylight hours away until you can get back into your bed, only to nestle in for a restless night once more, rest assured (get it?) you are not the only one.
According to findings from Aviva, as many as 67% of UK adults are suffering from disrupted sleep, with almost a quarter of us managing to get just five hours of sleep a night. In fact, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has named our modern dysfunctional relationship with sleep a ‘public health epidemic’ - but it wasn’t always this way.
"Botswana's native Kung hunter-gatherer tribe sleep only when they’re tired, be that at 8pm or 6am. There’s no set times for heading to bed, the necessary amount of sleep, or even when to wake up"
According to Bart Haex, in his book Back and Bed, in pre-modern society, Western Europeans wouldn’t actually sleep right the way through the night. We would wake at intervals for a relaxing period of wide-eyed ‘rest’ before heading back to bed to sleep again in a second round of slumber. In fact, the way humans approach sleep still differs drastically the world over, guided by culture, religion and age-old tradition.
We asked Dr Jessamy Hibberd, author of This Book Can Make You Sleep, if the world’s sleeping habits - from the sensible-sounding to the downright odd - might actually help us get a better rest, even if it does mean taking your duvet to work with you.
China & Japan
Owing to a gruelling working week, with punishing hours that make ‘work-life balance’ sound like an unachievable pipe dream, the Chinese and Japanese have taken to catching an extra forty winks at work. Some Chinese offices have installed sleeping and washing units so that their employees can nap between tasks; the Japanese now consider it a sign of hard work if they catch a fellow colleague sleeping on the job.
Tempting as it may be to just rest your head on your desk and shut down for a quick twenty minute snooze, Dr. Hibberd doesn’t approve. “I think it’s important to have boundaries between work and home, this practice prioritises work over sleep and self-care. Although it might mean you can catch sleep when there’s time, sleep is something you should make time for and getting a good night’s sleep and a break from work will make you more productive,” she says.
In a practice passed on by the ancient Mayans, modern Guatemalans head to bed with a doll to alleviate the anxieties that might keep them awake at night. Tiny ‘worry dolls’ are tucked underneath their pillow, poised to snatch away any nagging doubts or recurring negative thought patterns that might disrupt a peaceful, deep sleep.
It sounds a bit wacky but Dr Hibberd says, “Yes! Night can be a time when worries switch on as you suddenly have time to think. This can leave you feeling anxious making it hard to switch off and get to sleep. Worry dolls are a simple way to name the worries and let go of them.” Time to dig out your old Action Man or Barbie?
Don’t be alarmed if you come across a snoozing baby left unattended outside a café in freezing temperatures, if you happen to be in Norway. Parents here are prone to leaving their babies to nap outside in temperatures as low as -5 degrees during the day, as it’s believed to be good for their health. Dr Hibberd agrees, commenting, “sleep prefers cool temperatures, if you’re overheating you’re more likely to wake up.”
Alaska, Canada, Siberia, Greenland
Bedding down for a good night’s sleep is a family affair in Inuit communities. Sleeping in an igloo means being open to cuddles from both sides, because more bodies means more heat.
Apparently, cuddlers are on the right track, and getting in a relationship right on time for the winter months does have scientific reasoning. Having a bed buddy has been proven to be good for us. “Sleeping in a group increases a sense of security, improves your relationships, and research shows cortisol levels drop when you’re sharing a bed with someone you love,” says Dr Hibberd.
According to The National Sleep Foundation, almost half of Brits have a cup of tea before heading to bed, and one third then slip between the sheets stark-naked. For those of us not troubled with a weak bladder or a fresh layer of fake tan, this is advisable. “Having a ritual before bed, like drinking tea, can signal to your body and mind that it’s time to wind down and can act as a trigger to thinking about sleep as you build an association between a cup of tea before bed (or whatever works for you) and sleep,” says Dr Hibberd. She also advocates sleeping naked because “clothes get in the way of the body’s natural thermoregulation.”
In Botswana, locals don’t hit the sack when the sun goes down. The country’s native Kung hunter-gatherer tribe sleep only when they’re tired, be that at 8pm or 6am. There’s no set times for heading to bed, the necessary amount of sleep, or even when to wake up.
Time to ditch the alarm once and for all? Dr Hibberd says “yes and no.” While she maintains that listening your body and following your sleep drive is very important, it’s also good to follow your body clock. “Darkness stimulates the release of melatonin which signals to the brain that it’s time to sleep and creates a sleep window – the optimal time to aim for sleep,” she says.
The concept of ‘the bedroom’ is defunct in Afghanistan, where family members can sleep in any room of the house, often sleeping together in the same room. Come nightfall, they simply roll out their sleeping mat where they feel, or happen to be, while they’re nodding off.
Dr Hibberd says, “If you sleep well, you don’t need to have any set rules around sleep. However if you have trouble with sleeping it’s good to build an association between sleep and your bed and bedroom so that when you walk into your room, you think of sleep.”
Before ditching the alarm clock and abandoning your bed for the living room, a nice cold spot in the garden or even an igloo in the North Atlantic, Dr Hibberd advises on “listening to your body, working out the number of hours you need, where you sleep best, and what helps you.” Basically, you do you, and the Zs will come.
Anastasia Miari is a freelance food and travel writer, based between London and Athens. Keep up with her on Instagram.