Do you ever find yourself waking up at 3, 4 in the morning? If you do, you’re not alone – in fact, it turns out that references to broken sleep are littered throughout human history.
But wait – so many people are always talking about the importance of a good night’s sleep, so how does broken sleep factor into this? Doesn’t a good night’s sleep mean you’re getting a full 8+ hours of interrupted sleep through the night?
I used to think so too until I read this fascinating article that traces the history of human time-keeping practices and tools and explores how one effect of how modern, electrical illumination “revolutionized” the night was that it greatly affected sleeping patterns.
This made me realize: if sleeping patterns have been noticeably changed by the times, then what did a “good night’s sleep” look like before this “night revolution” occurred? One of the most compelling insights I found was in historian A. Roger Ekirch’s book, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, which explains that before Thomas Edison’s time, sleep had always been split into two specific segments, which were “separated by a period of night-waking that lasted between one and several hours” (this is called segmented sleep).
Ekirch researched the history of sleep patterns for 16 years, and noticed that there were countless references to ‘first’ and ‘second’ sleeps in English. He also picked up on more examples in other languages: like ‘premier sommeil’ in French, ‘primo sonno’ in Italian, and ‘primo somno’ in Latin. Because the allusions to segmented sleeping were in such ordinary contexts, Ekirch realized that this suggested that this pattern was common; it was simply the everyday cycle of sleeping and waking.
That was, until the early 20th century, when all the references to these two sleeps had all but disappeared. But while the references to “two sleeps” have basically totally vanished from our cultural awareness, humans have continued to sleep in segments. In Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey details the routines of well-known writers and artists, many of whom are segmented sleepers, and seem to have discovered the efficiency of it almost by accident, like architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who would wake up at 4 am, and, unable to fall back asleep, would work for 3 or 4 more hours before taking a nap.
Of course I’m not advocating for making it a goal to wake up every night, in the middle of the night, all for the sake of “productivity” and “creativity.” But it is important that those of you who naturally do this are aware that it is totally normal, that it can actually be beneficial, and that you don’t need to stress out about losing sleep during times when you find yourself wide awake. Considering how different we all are from each other biologically, it makes sense that taking the same approach to your sleep as you do with your exercise routine would be much more beneficial than adopting a one-size-fits-all mentality. So, try a few different things out, and eventually, you’ll hone in on what works for you.
I’ll also add that while not everyone needs the same amount of sleep, or to even go to bed at the same time, there are three things that everyone should do when it comes to sleep:
1) Establish a sleep sanctuary. Maintain an extremely tidy, minimalist bedroom, reserved for sleep, intimacy, and other restful activities, like pleasure reading and meditation. Any screens, piles of mail, stacks of magazines, partially completed home improvement projects, or any other clutter, is NOT allowed. Absolutely no mini-work areas! Google “minimalist bedroom design” imagery to get some inspiration to achieve a sanctuary feel. It’s essential to create both a physical and psychological separation between your bedroom and other areas of your house where you do work or consume entertainment. Maintain a temperature of between 60-68F (16-20C) to facilitate the slowing of assorted metabolic functions that help your body get and stay into sleep mode. For this same reason, you don’t want to do a workout or sauna in the evening hours.
2) Create total darkness for maximum sleep efficiency.
Use blackout blinds or drapery, and eliminate even tiny LCD screens and power indicator lights. Even minor light influences can significantly disrupt your attempt to cycle gracefully throughout all phases of sleep. Biohacker extraordinaire Dave Asprey travels with a roll of electrical tape so he can cover up every random light emission in a hotel room, including fire sprinklers and other offenders. As Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival details, it’s not only your eyes that are sensitive to light; skin cells all over your body have very sensitive light receptors. One study revealed that flashing a single beam of light on the back of the knee was enough to disrupt melatonin production. Taking a quick glance at your smartphone screen to see what time you stirred in the middle of the night can be surprisingly harmful beyond suppressing melatonin. Dr. Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep therapist and author of Tired But Wired: How To Overcome Your Sleep Problems, asserts that checking the time can, “send you into a whirl of calculations and worry about how much sleep you will or won’t be getting.”
3) Expose your eyes to natural light upon waking. The goal of a good night’s sleep actually starts first thing in the morning, by exposing your eyes to sunlight. This locks you into a really good circadian rhythm, so instead of glancing at your phone first, like 80% of Americans do, get outside for even just a minute. When you expose your eyes to direct sunlight first thing in the morning, you get an optimal spike of serotonin, cortisol, and the other hormones that make you feel alive and awake and energized!
A Note About Napping:
Napping offers numerous health benefits and can be especially helpful on days when you didn’t get enough sleep the night before. Taking naps refreshes depleted sodium-potassium pumps in your brain neurons, and also happens to be especially helpful and relevant right now specifically because of how melatonin interacts with inflammation caused by COVID-19. As Dr. Ron Sinha explained earlier this year on the Get Over Yourself podcast, “Melatonin specifically has an impact on shutting down the inflammation that comes from COVID-19; it literally inhibits the exact enzyme…There’s an alarm sensor inside our cells and it’s called NLRP3 inflammasome, and that’s literally the sensor switch that turns up inflammation ourselves. And melatonin is like a garden hose, it teems down that alarm sensor.”
I hope this article provides some help to anyone who is still working on perfecting their sleep environment and routine and also offers some relief to anyone who’s been thinking that their sleeping patterns are strange and need to be changed in order to conform to the “norm.” Well, as you know now, the norm used to involve two segments of sleep, and it makes sense scientifically: during night-waking, our brains experience hormonal changes that suit creativity, as the pituitary gland secretes high levels of prolactin, the hormone associated with peaceful sensations and the “dreamlike hallucinations” we can experience when falling asleep, or upon waking. This indicates that segmented sleeping is not just something humans have habitually done for years, but it’s also something that works with our biology. So instead of stressing, or trying to force yourself back to sleep, take advantage of that time. Write, read, meditate…whatever it is that calls to you. Think of it this way: you woke up for a reason, right? So make the most of that time. Ekirch sums up the importance of segmented sleep beautifully by saying: “By turning night into day, modern technology has obstructed our oldest avenue to the human psyche, making us, to invoke the words of the 17th-century English playwright Thomas Middleton, ‘disannulled of our first sleep, and cheated of our dreams and fantasies.’”