Can 'going paleo' help you sleep better?


Evelyn Lewin

"An hour of sleep before midnight is worth two after."

"An hour of sleep before midnight is worth two after." Photo: Stocksy

Unless you've been living under a rock (pun intended), you've heard about the paleo diet; that is, eating like our ancestors once did. While "going paleo" in the bedroom has nothing to do with what you eat, adapting "paleo-inspired" sleeping habits is good for your health, says Dr David Cunnington, founder of Sleep Hub. He shares his top tips for sleeping like a caveperson. 

Be active and spend more time outdoors during the day.

If you sit all day, it's little wonder you're not physically tired enough to sleep at night. Our ancestors didn't have this problem, and being outside all day also meant they soaked up some serious sunshine. This had a positive impact on sleep because sunlight suppresses production of the sleep-related hormone, melatonin. When it got dark, their levels of melatonin would rise, making them sleepy. To get a similar effect, Cunnington suggests heading outdoors every day to catch some rays, preferably around midday.

Relax in the evenings.


Cavepeople didn't have Game of Thrones to binge-watch, or smartphones to browse. Instead, they gathered by the fire. This was good for sleep because the dim light didn't interfere with melatonin levels. On the other hand, artificially-lit devices (like screens) suppress melatonin, which means our hormone levels don't peak until long after we've turned off our devices.

Go to sleep before midnight.

We know we should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep a night but most of us use "late night" and "early morning" interchangeably, assuming it doesn't matter when we sleep. That's not the case, says Cunnington. "Historically, human sleep has been described as a first and second sleep," he explains. The first sleep, lasting three to four hours, is deepest, while the second consists of lighter "dozing" before sunrise. He recommends having your deepest sleep at a time when it's most beneficial, saying, "An hour of sleep before midnight is worth two after."

Don't expect to sleep through the night.

It's normal to wake often during the night, says Cunnington. In the old days, our ancestors would wake to stoke the fire, or ward off animals. They also had a period of "prolonged awakening", a few hours between the two blocks of sleep. "Human sleep was not described as a continuous block until industrialisation," he explains, "and no mammals in their natural environment sleep in continuous blocks." So instead of getting wound up each time you wake, remind yourself that it's a normal event. Letting go of the frustration that often accompanies such awakenings will help you drift off again.

Stop trying to control your sleep.

Our ancestors had little control over their sleeping environments, which were often cold or uncomfortable. "Control of the sleep environment is a modern concept, in that we believe we can only sleep if conditions are just right," explains Cunnington. It's also a concept that's ruining our sleep. "Lots of patients I see feel they can only sleep if they control light, noise, temperature, mattress, pillow, partner's noises etc." He says we need to accept that even if conditions aren't perfect, we're still capable of sleeping well.

Allow yourself to "switch off".

Unlike our caveman and cavewoman ancestors, we can work any time, day or night. While that might be good news for our bosses, it's terrible for our sleep. The answer, says Cunnington, is simple. We need to remember that nights are for relaxing and sleeping, nothing else. It's not a time for checking emails or mentally tackling a work assignment. "Once the sun goes down, the day's work is done."