We often worry ourselves silly about lying awake in the middle of the night, but could it actually be good for you? A growing body of evidence from both science and history suggests just that!
In fact, the 8-hour sleep schedule as we know it may even be unnatural.
After twenty years of extensive research, historian Robert Ekirch concludes that prior to the Industrial Revolution, humans slept in two shifts.
In an age where darkness constituted half of human life, sleep was broken into TWO segments called: first sleep and second sleep. Also referred to as segmented or biphasic sleep
We can blame the shift in our sleeping habits on Thomas Edison and the advent of artificial light. Extra light allowed people to work much later into the evening, pushing bedtimes back further and further disrupting our circadian rhythm and rearranging our sense of time. Sleep was lumped into a single interval rather than the two we were used to.
"For most of our evolution we slept a certain way," says sleep psychologist Gregg Jacobs. "Waking up during the night is part of normal human physiology."
Sleep researcher Thomas Wehr conducted an experiment in which a group of people were plunged into darkness for 14 hours every day for a month. He wanted to find out if humans still carried within them the rhythms for prehistoric modes of sleep.
The results were shocking.
By week four the participants naturally began to divide their sleep into two segments. They slept first for four hours, then woke for one or two hours before falling into a second four-hour sleep.
Wehr’s study sent shockwaves through the sleep world and sleep specialists began to wonder if our modern-day insomnia epidemic was anything but an epidemic.
Could it be that people that experience "insomnia" may actually be doing things right?
Historians continued to dig into records to verify that “divided sleep” was not the exception, but the norm.
Still, among the general public the idea that we must sleep for eight consecutive hours persists.
Today, even though most people have adapted fairly well to the 8-hour sleep, Ekirch believes that many of our sleeping problems have roots in the human body’s natural preference for segmented sleep.
Nocturnal awakenings aren't abnormal at all; they are the natural rhythm that your body gravitates toward. Historians and psychiatrists alike believe it's the compressed, continuous eight-hour sleep schedule that our modern world demands that is unprecedented in human history.
Middle of the night insomnia started to appear in literature at the end of the 19th century around the same time segmented sleep started to disappear.
The idea that we must sleep in one continuous block can be damaging in that it creates anxiety in the individuals who experience it. Anxiety in turn prohibits sleep.
In his research, Ekrich found that people used the time in between sleeps to meditate on their dreams. It suggests that during the waking period, people were forced into periods of rest and relaxation which likely played a large role in the human capacity to regulate stress naturally.
In modern days, of course, we spend far less time doing such things so is it surprising that the number of people who report anxiety, stress, depression, and drug and alcohol abuse has gone up?
I share this myth because what we believe about our sleep greatly influences its outcome. Accepting that it is, in fact, completely normal to wake up in the middle of the night may change how you perceive your own sleep patterns.
For hundreds of thousands of years, waking up periodically to reconnect with our conscious surroundings was expected. It was an important part of our survival and a natural way of staying safe.
When compared to our previous sleep behaviors, (which evolved over several centuries), our modern world sleep demands have been around for a relatively short period of time.
So, the next time you wake up in the middle of the night, think of your pre-industrial ancestors. You’re simply tuning into the wisdom of your own biology. In fact, being awake could actually be good for you.
If you’d like to know more about how to coax your brain back to sleep in the middle of the night, click here!
Supporting you in all things sleep,
Beth Kendall MA, FNTP
Holistic Sleep Coach
Health Disclaimer: The information and other content provided in this blog, or in any linked materials, are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment.
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