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Sleep: You’re Doing It Wrong

The title’s a nod to a popular internet meme–you’re not really doing it wrong! But one reason you may be tired, depressed, anxious, or stressed could be that our expectation about “normal sleep” is oh-so…1800s. And it could be undermining your health, or at the least, contributing to your sleep problems.

There is fascinating research on how people used to sleep, and it’s not how we’re doing it (or trying to do it) today. The eight-hour uninterrupted stretch? A pretty recent idea. Turns out, before the late 1700s, most human beings slept in TWO cycles: a “first sleep” of about four hours, awake for two, and then a “second sleep” of four hours more.

Many people today who suffer from sleep maintenance insomnia (translation: you wake up and can’t get back to sleep) panic about being awake. But what did your forbears do during their middle-of-the-night wakenings? They walked to a coffee shop. Lay peacefully in bed analysing their dreams. Got up and read or wrote by candlelight. Had long chats (or sex) with their bedfellows. Prayed. Visited a neighbor. Most of all, they weren’t concerned about it.

The Dark Side of Brightness

What changed? The big disruption to our natural sleep pattern was night-time lighting. Once streetlights were introduced, being out and about after dark was less dangerous. As indoor lighting made staying up possible, working into the night became a new industrial efficiency to exploit. Bedtimes crept later. And for the upper classes, evening socializing became a fashionable pastime. Call your carriage and off you go for late-night pinochle or swilling. Or after the Reformation, you might sneak off to a secret service.

More likely today? You wake, lie there stewing over missing some of your allotted eight, and turn to worrying through some mental checklists. All the while feeling increasingly anxious about how you’ll cope when the alarm goes off and you have to start another day fatigued. (Which, of course, makes it even harder to get back to sleep.)

The Old Normal

Sleeping in two distinct chunks of time is also called segmented, or bi-modal sleep. And the truth is, that’s what’s normal. There are many references to it in historical documents stretching back 500 years. That two-hour waking mode in the middle of the night served as a kind of forced relaxation period. And as it slipped out of our lives, stress began to intensify, even become chronic. While stresses have always been part of life, it’s not news that mental stress and its companion problems are particular miseries of modern times.

The belief itself–that a straight eight-hour sleep is normal–can create an undercurrent of anxiety that spills into the day. It can even contribute to depression, substance abuse, and other medical problems. Unfortunately, the subtleties of sleep and its natural pattern are neglected in most medical training.

Scientists who study natural sleep have found that a remarkable surge of the hormone prolactin that doesn’t happen at any other time occurs during the between-sleeps hours. This results in a state of true wakefulness during the day that study subjects had never before experienced. They also reported unprecedented daytime productivity and focus.

Reclaiming Your Sleep

Can you reclaim the sleep cycle of your pre-industrial peers? Sure. Of course, you’ll have to give up those last two hours of watching TV or working or mingling during the evening. That’s a big challenge. Still motivated to try it? Here’s how:

Set aside 10 hours, not eight, for sleep. Start by moving your bedtime an hour earlier, or in smaller increments if that’s easier, then gradually move it up by two hours. When you do wake in the night? Welcome it. Wake calmly into the awareness that that this is a perfect time for some gentle reflection or activity. You’ll soon begin to experience the interval as a very natural episode–not as a problem.

Think of it instead as a gift of a deeper, different kind of time, not connected to your daily striving. Mysterious and still, the sweet period between “first sleep” and “second sleep” can enrich your life if you let it.

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