It’s not insomnia – it’s ‘segmented sleep’

I was reading the latest  J. Peterman catalog (Mom collected them as they were such fun to look through) and came across a statement that piqued my curiosity: “Your ancestors slept twice during the night.”

I had never heard of such a thing, and Googled it to learn more.

I must have been snoozing when the reports came out, but I learned that in 2001, Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech published a paper based on 15 years of research that showed that our ancestors used to sleep in two separate chunks of time (1).

It seems that the ‘first sleep’ would start at nightfall after the kiddies were in bed, and usually would last for 3-4 hours.  Upon waking in the middle of abbiecatthe night, people would tend their fires, read, pray, think or meditate, or snuggle and ‘play’ under the covers.

Considering the harsh life that our forebearers had and the never-ending chores that consumed their daylight hours, it was probably peaceful and rewarding to have a little time to ones’ self.  Folks would sometimes even visit their neighbors, get a jump on baking bread for the next day, or make a special gift for someone.  During times of religious persecution, they might go to secret church services.

Then after a few hours of being awake, they would retire for the ‘second sleep’ that would last another 3-4 hours until morning.

Prior to the 17th Century, everyone knew about this two-chunk sleep pattern because it was the way humans normally slept, and references can be found in hundreds of books including Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dickens. But when people became more time-conscious in order to get to work at the factories, doctors began discouraging broken sleep, and by the 1920’s no one remembered ever having slept that way.

Not only was it part of the culture, it appears that left to it’s own resources, the body actually prefers to sleep that way!

There was also some research done in the early 1990’s by psychiatrist Thomas Wehr. He conducted an experiment where 14 people were put into complete darkness for 14 hours a day for an entire month. By the fourth week the participants had settled into a very distinct sleeping pattern: the same bimodal sleeping pattern that Ekirch (2001) described. The subjects slept for approximately 4 hours, woke for another few, and then went back to sleep until morning. (2

It all sounds perfectly reasonable to me, but then, my mother always did that.  She’d fight to stay awake in the evenings, even when young, but then would get up at two or three in the morning and start the laundry, read or pray.  I can’t tell you how many times Mom would sneak into my room at 4:00 am to bring my folded clothes to me.  At first, it was annoying (and I thought rather crazy), but then I’d just roll over and go back to sleep because it was just… well, normal.

Yet maybe she had something there.  When Mom came to live with me, there was nothing unusual about her sometimes being awake in the middle of the night, nothing that required sleeping pills or even warm milk. I set up a baby monitor system that my sister gave me, and when my mother awoke I could hear her moving around through the little speaker in my bedroom.  I’d simply listen, and act accordingly.

Perhaps when people now complain about broken sleep they should be told that it’s perfectly natural and they don’t have ‘sleep maintenance insomnia.’ Of course, it’s wise to limit fluids before bed, but even then, there is nothing wrong with getting up to use the bathroom and then not being able to go right back to sleep. Quiet reflection, thinking of what you are grateful for, planning the day ahead – these are all things that will contribute to a more pleasant day.  Becoming anxious and worried that sleep will not come is futile, and rather than taking a pill, a cup of herbal or Chamomile tea will often do the trick.

I was thrilled recently to hear from a cousin who told me that her mother, who is going to be 92 years old , does not take any medication for ANY of her ailments. She treats them all with proper food and vitamins.  BRAVO for her!

I hope that more and more people look beyond the current practice of taking prescriptions — and even over-the-counter medications, and learn that there are safer and more natural ways of growing older.  Sometimes the trick is to just relax and enjoy it.



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