About a year into the pandemic, Marcela Rafea started waking up regularly at 3 a.m., her mind racing.
She would slip out of bed and tiptoe into the living room, where she would meditate, try a few yoga poses, and open the window to hear the leaves rustle, the cars go by, and the dogs bark.
Then, at 6 a.m., she would go back to bed and sleep again until her youngest child woke her up for the day at 7 a.m.
“I needed that nighttime awakening to catch up on the time I didn’t have for myself,” said Rafea, a 50-year-old photographer and mother of three who lives in Illinois in the United States.
It wasn’t until artificial light was introduced that people started forcing themselves to sleep through the night.
Unbeknownst to Rafea, she had naturally reverted to a sleep cycle that was believed to be the norm in several late medieval to early 19th century cultures.
Meanwhile, many people fell asleep at sunset and woke up three to four hours later. They socialized, read books, ate small meals, and tried to conceive for an hour or two before going back to sleep a second time for another three to four hours. It wasn’t until artificial light was introduced that people started forcing themselves to sleep through the night, said A Roger Ekirch, a history professor at Virginia Tech and author of The Great Sleep Transformation.
Now that many people are setting their own schedules, working from home and focusing more on self-care, there has been a return for some to the idea of a segmented sleep cycle – voluntary and, given levels of stress of the past two years, do not.
So, are we just reverting to our long-forgotten natural sleep cycle? And could this be the cure for those who are notorious for middle-of-the-night insomniacs?
Ekirch, who has studied segmented sleep for the past 35 years, said there are more than 2,000 references to it from literary sources: everything from letters and diaries to court records, newspapers, plays, novels and poetry, from Homer to Chaucer to Dickens.
“The phenomenon had different names in different places: first and second sleep, first nap and dead sleep, evening sleep and morning sleep,” said Benjamin Reiss, professor of English at Emory University and author of Wild Nights. : How Taming Sleep. Created our restless world. He added that rather than being a choice at the time, it was simply something people did, as it fit with agricultural and artisanal work patterns.
At the time, in addition to being a useful time to conceive, the waking period was also considered a prime time to take potions and pills and to aid digestion (one slept on one side of the body during first sleep, then on the other side during the second sleep), says Ekirch.
There was no pressure to get to the factory on time, to catch a train or to send the kids to school, as most of the work was done at or near the house, Reiss said. Sleep was not governed by the clock, but by the rhythms of night and day and the changing seasons.
There were also negative reasons for segmented sleep.
“Sleeping surfaces – often a sack full of grass, or if you’re lucky, wool or horsehair – made it harder than it is today to sleep for a long time uninterrupted,” said Reiss. And there were, of course, health issues. For example, “without modern dentistry, a toothache might start beating in the middle of the night.”
Everything changed with the Industrial Revolution, emphasizing profit and productivity; the belief was that people who confined their sleep to a single interval gained an advantage. The increasing prevalence of artificial lights has allowed for later bedtimes, resulting in sleep compression.
Fast forward a few hundred years, and we’ve gotten used to compressed sleep. Well, some of us have.
Thirty percent of people report waking up at least three nights a week, according to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, and 25 percent of adults suffer from insomnia each year, according to a recent study by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania. For some people, the pandemic has spurred more flexible schedules, leading to experiments with the old-fashioned sleep method.
This is the case of Mark Hadley, a 52-year-old financial director from Oregon, in the United States. In the past 20 years, Hadley said he couldn’t remember a time when he slept completely through the night.
“I always woke up in the middle of the night and lay there,” he said. “Physically, I wanted to get up, but I needed more sleep.”
Segmented sleep forces individuals to go to bed earlier, which may not work with many schedules
Hadley had no choice. He had heard of segmented sleep, but hadn’t had time to stretch his…until his work became mostly remote during the pandemic.
So in August 2021, Hadley began segmental sleep, going to bed at 10 p.m. and waking up naturally at 2 a.m. He gets up one and a half to two o’clock to read and pray. Then he goes back to bed around 3:30 or 4 a.m. and sleeps until his wife wakes him up at 6:30 or 7 a.m.
“That’s what my body was trying to do, even when I had never heard of it,” Hadley said. “I finally got to a place where I have a healthy sleep pattern.”
However, doctors are conflicted over the health of segmented sleep.
“We don’t really know the long-term impacts of segmented sleep because we don’t really have a lot of data on it,” said Matthew Ebben, associate professor of psychology in clinical neurology at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian.
It can make some people more tired and sleepy throughout the day, said Nicole Avena, health psychologist and assistant professor of neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Also, Avena said, segmented sleep causes individuals to go to bed earlier, which may not work with many schedules.
That’s why Kristopher Weaver, a 43-year-old songwriter from Pennsylvania, USA, said he only manages to stick to a segmented sleep schedule a few nights a week. On days when he has time to sleep between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. and then between 3 a.m. and 7 a.m., he wakes up rested. During his break between the first and second sleep, when his mind is calm and recharged, Weaver has more energy to write his songs.
The nights he forces himself to sleep straight through? He needs caffeine and marijuana to get through the next day.
For Danielle Hughes (33), segmented sleep was a cure for her insomnia. Hughes, who lives in Dublin, spent an entire year consulting doctors to try and find a solution to his waking up in the middle of the night. She eventually googled her problem and came across segmented sleep.
“It was like a light bulb moment for me,” Hughes said. “Any anxiety I had about not being able to sleep started to subside, and I started to feel like what little sleep I got at night was okay as long as I used my waking time more productively.”
Returning to medieval sleep habits may not be for everyone
Since discovering segmented sleep, Hughes has been more open to the concept, sleeping from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. and again from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.
In cases of insomnia-related anxiety like Hughes’, segmented sleep is often an ideal solution, said Alex Savy, sleep science coach and founder of SleepingOcean, a sleep product review site. in Toronto, Canada.
“When practicing segmented sleep, insomniacs don’t have to worry about waking up in the middle of the night, because that’s how segmented sleep works,” Savy said. “Therefore, they can adjust the schedule to their insomnia and reduce the stress associated with it.”
But reverting to medieval sleep patterns isn’t for everyone, Avena said, suggesting segmented sleep should only be tried by those who already have sleep issues.
“I think that while it may promote better sleep for these people, it probably has more consequences than benefits for those who don’t have trouble sleeping,” she said. – This article originally appeared in the New York Times.