End Your Insomnia: The New Shift in Sleep

Before artificial light was common, people snoozed for part of the night, got up for a while, then returned to bed. Our writer shows that this medieval pattern yields modern benefits

by Beth Levine
eye mask sleep image
Photograph: Ben Wiseman

I’m what people call a restless sleeper. I conk out fast but get up eleventy-jillion times in the wee hours to pee, stare at the ceiling or fret about life. Then I flip and flop around for what seems like forever, beseeching Morpheus to redescend and bless me with unconsciousness. The only thing I usually accomplish is pulling the sheets off the bed and trapping myself in the twisted mass.

So even though I go to bed at a reasonable hour (11:30 p.m., after Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show) and stay there until about 8 a.m. (I work at home, so no commute), I never feel rested. I usually sneak in a catnap around 3 p.m., but because I am so tired, my planned 20-minute siesta can extend to an hour (or two), effectively killing the afternoon and leaving me disoriented and kind of nauseated.

That’s why I’m eager to try what is known as biphasic sleeping, which was a common practice for many people before the advent of artificial light in the Industrial Revolution. They went to bed 9 p.m.–ish, woke up maybe five hours later and, instead of fighting the wakefulness, accepted it as the norm, using the next hour or so to read by candlelight, get frisky with their partner, putter around, visit with neighbors who had the same sleep schedule or just lie quietly in a kind of meditation. Then they went back to sleep for another few hours.

Virginia Tech history professor A. Roger Ekirch, PhD, stumbled across this pattern while conducting research for his book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. He found preindustrial documents and literature (such as The Canterbury Tales) that referred to “first sleep” and “second sleep” as common occurrences. During the 1990s, research conducted at the National Institute of Mental Health suggested a biological basis for this sleeping in shifts. Thomas A. Wehr, MD, a psychiatrist who now has a private practice in Bethesda, Maryland, led a monthlong experiment in which subjects were deprived of artificial light for 14 hours a day. Without lightbulbs, the subjects fell asleep at about 8 p.m., woke up after midnight for a few hours and then went back to sleep. Wehr concluded that biphasic sleeping may be what our bodies would do naturally if there were no artificial light to keep us awake.

“Nowadays we think of segmented sleeping as a disorder, but maybe we have it completely backwards,” says Wehr. “Maybe when we wake up in the middle of the night, it’s actually a natural pattern of human sleep that is reasserting itself in a modern world.”

In other words, maybe the only problem with my sleep habits is my thinking they’re a problem. Sounds good to me. So I decide to try my own test. For two weeks, I will embrace the biphasic pattern and see if I feel more refreshed and productive during my waking hours.

It’s an experiment that ends up changing my life.

For a game plan, I talk to Mark Sisson, author of The Primal Blueprint and publisher of the health blog Mark’s Daily Apple, who has studied “shift sleeping.” He suggests this approach:

1 Figure out when I need to be up in the morning. Then count back and hit the sack nine hours before that, which will give me two four-hour sleep blocks and one hour of in-between awake time. “Each sleep block has to be long enough for you to get your full REM sleep, since that’s when most of our recovery and growth take place,” says Sisson. I decide to go to bed by 10 p.m. and get up by 7 a.m.

2 After sunset—or at least two hours before bedtime—reduce my exposure to artificial light, including (gulp) computers and TV. If I really can’t give those up, I should wear blue light--blocking glasses or stick to yellow light, provided, for example, by candles. “Yellow light, natural to sunlight and fire, does not interfere with the onset of dim-light melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep,” Sisson explains. He also clues me in on F.lux (stereopsis.com/flux), a free software program that makes the color of your computer’s display adapt to the light in the room (at night, you get a blue that’s warm rather than cool).

First published in the June 2013 issue

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