August 29th. NBC Nightly news reports on what seems like an epidemic of sleeping pill use. More and more people turn to drugs to get the sleep they need. The report describes insomnia as “serious” when “it takes thirty minutes or longer to fall sleep, if you are awake at least thirty minutes during the night, or wake up thirty minutes or earlier than you would like.”
But is this really the case? Historical and scientific studies suggest otherwise.
On February 22nd, 2012 Stephanie Hegarty of the BBC reported on two decades of sleep research showing our notion of the single, eight hour sleep is a relatively new one.
In the 1990s a sleep study by Thomas Weir which found that, given the time to adjust to periods of greater darkness and without the intrusion of electric lights, subjects naturally settled into a first sleep lasting about four hours followed by an hour or two of waking after which they settled into a second four hour sleep period. This is called “second sleep” or “segmented sleep.”
But second/segmented sleep is not just a phenomena of the laboratory.
“In 2001, historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech published a seminal paper, drawn from 16 years of research, revealing a wealth of historical evidence that humans used to sleep in two distinct chunks.
His book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, published four years later, unearths more than 500 references to a segmented sleeping pattern – in diaries, court records, medical books and literature, from Homer’s Odyssey to an anthropological account of modern tribes in Nigeria.
Much like the experience of Wehr’s subjects, these references describe a first sleep which began about two hours after dusk, followed by waking period of one or two hours and then a second sleep.”
So why is our belief in the single, eight hour sleep so strong that now sleeping differently is considered a “serious” problem?
According to Dr. Ekirich, this transition began with increased access to lighting — first candles, then gas lamps, and finally electricity. Adding light to our lives after dark opened up new possibilities for activity after dark — though it is perhaps telling when Ekrich cites a 16th century medical manual advising the best time to conceive is after first sleep, a time later known to be when sex hormones peak in our bodies (roughly 2am to 5am).
As social attitudes changes and access to light at night became cheaper, we shifted our sleep patterns, slowly and gradually, towards a single sleep cycle.
But our bodies never changed. Instead, we remain hard wired to the segmented sleep pattern. What has changed, however is the modern attitude towards second, segmented sleep, so much so that, as NBC reports, as many as 6% of all women currently take sleeping pills.
Perhaps the problem is not with our sleep cycles as much as with our attitudes towards them.
I myself tend to sleep in a segmented pattern. In fact, my best ideas and best work often comes during the break between my sleep periods, building upon the creative work of my REM sleep (where dreaming occurs). Only after I’ve at least written down on a notepad whatever inspirations come during first sleep can I settle back down for my second sleep.
So what can you do to sleep better? Expert advice and personal experience shows me these tips work really well:
- Keep the TV, computer, and other gadgets out of the bedroom as much as possible. The bedroom is for sleeping — not entertainment. Thinking about facebook, your favorite show, or about some stressor will only keep you awake.
- Don’t watch the time or look at the clock. Worrying about the time by being aware of it only hypes your brain into more alertness. Instead, set your alarm and leave the time there until it goes off.
- Keep the room cool and dark. Darkness triggers your brain for sleep.
- Avoid use of lights in the hours leading up to bedtime. The more light around you after the sun sets, the more your brain is wired to believe it’s time to be awake. Use task lighting when and where you need it most and keep the rest of the lights low or off.
- When you lay down to sleep, don’t think about falling asleep. Instead focusing on resting and relaxing. If that means you are resting and not sleeping for the first hour after you lay down, so be it. The more you think about sleeping, the less you will sleep.
- While you rest, clear your head of anything stressful or unpleasant. This is not the time to solve problems or settle arguments — wait until you wake for the day to do that. Sleep time is you time. So think only about those things you enjoy. If a stressful thought comes into your head, acknowledge it and let it pass; don’t dwell on it. This includes stressers from outside your room intruding in — like your neighbor’s drunken party.
- If you find yourself stressing, resolve to make solving the problem or making progress on solving the problem something you will do in the morning (write it down if that helps). Once you acknowledge the stressor and write down a plan of action about it, let it go! Dwelling on the problem will only prevent you from sleeping and efficiently fixing whatever it is (yes, this is easier said than done).
- If you find yourself sleeping in two or more blocks during the night, embrace it, don’t fight it. Adjust by setting your bedtime or settling down to bedtime to a few minutes or an hour before when you normally do. Remember that you get more done through rest than by trying to force yourself into an artificial sleeping schedule.
Rest is critical to our health and well-being. As medical evidence concerning the critical role sleep pays in our lives and health increases, learning to sleep better only increases in importance. Working with your body, instead of against it, gives you more sleep and higher quality sleep so you can live a longer, healthier life.
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