Background and objectives
Sleep is a vulnerable state in which individuals are more susceptible to threat, which may have led to evolved mechanisms for increasing safety. The sentinel hypothesis proposes that brief awakenings during sleep may be a strategy for detecting and responding to environmental threats. Observations of sleep segmentation and group sentinelization in hunter-gatherer and small-scale communities support this hypothesis, but to date it has not been tested in comparisons with industrial populations characterized by more secure sleep environments.
Here, we compare wake after sleep onset (WASO), a quantitative measure of nighttime awakenings, between two nonindustrial and two industrial populations: Hadza hunter-gatherers (n=33), Malagasy small-scale agriculturalists (n=38), and Hispanic (n=1,531) and non-Hispanic White (NHW) (n=347) Americans. We compared nighttime awakenings between these groups using actigraphically-measured sleep data. We fit linear models to assess whether WASO varies across groups, controlling for sex and age.
We found that WASO varies significantly by group membership, and is highest in Hadza (2.44 hours) and Malagasy (1.93 hours) and lowest in non-Hispanic Whites (0.69 hours). Hispanics demonstrate intermediate WASO (0.86 hours), which is significantly more than NHW participants. After performing supplementary analysis within the Hispanic sample, we found that WASO is significantly and positively associated with increased perception of neighborhood violence.
Conclusions and implications
Consistent with principles central to evolutionary medicine, we propose that evolved mechanisms to increase vigilance during sleep may now be mismatched with relatively safer environments, and in part responsible for driving poor sleep health.