Josh Freed: I need more Neanderthal DNA to help me sleep

I’ve battled sleepless nights my whole life and tried almost everything else.

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I finally understand why I’m a night owl who has never been a good sleeper.

I don’t have enough Neanderthal blood in me.

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Recent studies suggest having a trace of 70,000-year-old Neanderthal DNA may be the secret behind you chirpy early-to-bed, early-to-rise types.

Meanwhile, pure sapien-DNA descendants are more likely to be late-rising insomniacs, like me.

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One current theory is we sleepless, late-night owls may be descendants of ancient night watchmen who tended the fire tens of thousands of years ago, while you early birds’ ancient ancestors were sleeping.

In fact, we still look after the world at 2:30 a.m. while you sleep. So just say thanks for 70,000 years of our night watchmen work.

That said, I could use a bit more Neanderthal DNA, given how I sleep.

I’ve battled sleepless nights my whole life and tried almost everything: deep breathing, calming sleep tapes, sleep data trackers, drugs, deep breathing exercises and much more.

Nothing worked well. But, in recent years, a new strategy is helping me sleep somewhat better: distraction.

My basic problem is I have a nighttime alter ego I call “Late-night Leonard.” He’s a nervous type who gets wakeful and agitated around 4 a.m. about things Daytime Josh barely notices.

Daytime Josh doesn’t sweat the small stuff and generally sails through life. But Leonard is a nighttime Nervous Nelly whose serial inner thoughts cascade like this:

“Hmmm – it’s 4 a.m. … I’M AWAKE! What can I worry about?

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“Geez, did I remember to turn off the stove last night? Or lock the car? … And yikes! Where did I park the car last night, after driving?

“Driving? …. Hmm. That reminds me: Who was that actress in Driving Miss Daisy, that movie I saw again recently? Was it … Janice or Jennifer … or — Oh yeah — Jessica something. But what?

“It’s right on the tip of my tongue … I can feel it there! … Ohmygawd! What’s that bump on my tongue I never noticed before … is it CANCER?

“Or did I just bite my tongue while sleeping? I better check out “bump on tongue” on WebMD, right now!”

There are nights Josh has to get up to google stuff just so Leonard can get back to sleep.

Some nights can be a psychological war between Nervous-Leonard and let-me-sleep Josh. The key is to shut Leonard out of my brain so Josh can get some sleep and handle things on his own in the morning.

So that’s my new sleep strategy: keeping my brain so busy Leonard can’t get in.

That’s why people with insomnia traditionally counted sheep, to distract themselves from thinking about stupid stuff at night. But, today, almost anyone with Grade 7 math can count sheep and still keep thinking.

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So we sleepless types need more challenging mental nighttime tasks.

Two years ago, I started to do late-night “bedtime math”: mentally calculating, then eventually memorizing multiplication tables from 3 x 3 though 60 X 60.

For instance: 47×47 = 2,209, 48×48 = 2,304, 49×49 = zzzzz.

That’s an utterly useless skill in the age of the calculator. But it helped keep my mind too occupied for Leonard to break in.

After a year of post-midnight multiplying, I got bored with math and sought other distractions. Last year, I switched to recalling and reciting the names of every continent’s nations.

Eventually, I learned to murmur all 195, as dozily as a monk’s chant: Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau … Gz-z-z-zzzzz.

Again, it’s a pointless skill, since I’ve always been directionally and cartographically challenged, so I can barely locate these countries on a map. But, boy, can I reel them off alphabetically!

Other insomniacs I know use different mental challenges to distract them. Some remember the names of every historical president, prime minister or famous actor.

Others recall every romantic date they went on from grade school on, before getting married 37 years ago.

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A golfer friend distracts himself on sleepless nights by mentally walking his favourite course and playing each hole. I tried midnight mental golf, but it was even more frustrating than my few times playing real golf — and just kept me up.

Then, last year, another insomniac friend suggested her sleep technique: thinking of five-letter words.

So in 2023, I started conjuring up five-letter words starting with “A”, like abbey, abbot, about and abyss. Over the months, I worked my way through thousands, all the way down to zebra, zorro, zygote and zzzzz.

These tasks all kept Leonard at bay and somewhat improved my sleep. But, recently, I exhausted every last five-letter word I could think of.

So now I’ve started on six-letters words, way harder, and will eventually move on to seven, eight and maybe 12-letter ones.

But I’m sleeping slightly better and haven’t heard much from Leonard, who can’t get a six-letter word or worry in edgewise.

Please note: If you’re sleep-challenged and tempted to try this, it can get very mentally exhausting.

But that’s the point, because when I’m exhausted enough, I fall asleep.

Hmmm? … “Asleep!” That’s a six-letter word I’ll remember to start with tonight.


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