Almost everyone suffers from insomnia at some point in their lives, but some unlucky folks deal with it on a regular basis, and plenty of people turn to prescription drugs after none of the usual tricks (counting sheep, warm milk) seem to work. But what if many people who think they suffer from sleep problems actually don't have a problem at all?
According to a fascinating article from the BBC, there are both historical and scientific examples of a bifurcated sleep pattern for much of preindustrial human history — meaning that in the times before electric light, most people went to sleep a few hours after the sun went down, slept for about four hours, then got up for an hour or so, and then went to bed for another four hours. This was considered totally normal, and seems to be natural. In a month-long experiment wherein participants were deprived of regular light and schedules, this sleep pattern that emerged as the most common.
Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech published a book in 2005 called, "At Day's Close: Night in Times Past," which, according to the BBC, "... unearths more than 500 references to a segmented sleeping pattern — in diaries, court records, medical books and literature, from Homer's 'Odyssey' to an anthropological account of modern tribes in Nigeria."
The bifurcated pattern of sleep, which many people consider insomnia today, might very well be a natural, normal schedule (even this New York Times writer thinks he has a problem, when he displays this exact pattern while reviewing insomnia relief at hotels). So how did it work? Between the first and second sleeps, people did all sorts of things, from visiting with neighbors for a chat, to woodworking or handcrafts, to prayer and writing. A French doctor's manual even suggested that this time between sleeping segments was the best for sex between couples looking to conceive.
The two-part sleeping pattern was done away with in the 17th and 18th centuries, as night lighting became more common and staying out all night was no longer as risky — or looked down upon — as it had been when only prostitutes and criminals were awake all night. The rise of all-night cafe culture and streetlights meant that people could stay up later after the sun set, and so the eight-hour continuous sleep came into vogue.
Of course, there are plenty of legitimate issues associated with insomnia, but sometimes the tossing and turning — the worry that something is wrong — is even worse than the actual sleeplessness, isn't it? Next time you find yourself awake in the middle of the night for a time, consider taking an hour or so to do something relaxing, and then return to bed when you feel sleepy again. At least you won't be upset and frustrated, thinking you 'should' be asleep, and maybe this will lead to less anxiety about the situation. Which just might help you get back to sleep.
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