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

It turns out that it’s one thing to wind down early when there is absolutely nothing to do but quite another when there are so many modern-day enticements. TV! E-mail! Facebook! Netflix! Phone! Storage Wars! I can get my Jon Stewart fix earlier in the evening—psst, reruns at 7:30 p.m., pass it on—but can I break my computer habit as well? I shut the thing down. And then boot it back up because I remembered one more event to put in my calendar. Then shut it down. Then back on. Feel itchy and slightly panicked. Oh, Lordy, my name is Beth and I am a computer addict. I force myself to go to bed and turn on my now fully charged e-reader.

10 p.m. Asleep!

4 a.m. I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date. I promised Bill I’d wake him for some after-midnight delight, but I slept longer than usual. Despite the early-morning hour, he rises to the occasion. Frankly, I’ve never seen him so supportive of my work.

Wednesday
9 p.m. I’m feeling a change—moving past the computer jones and beginning to enjoy the early-evening wind-down.

3:30 a.m. You know what’s kind of a relief? When I start to wake up, I no longer fight it. Wehr helped me reframe the issue: “Most people naturally wake at some point, but then they worry they aren’t getting enough sleep. The anxiety makes the sleeplessness worse. Instead, if we embrace the two-shift idea, we may actually sleep better because we lessen the anxiety.” So when I’m up in the middle of the night, I accept that as normal. I know that if I do a little something, I’ll be back to sleep shortly.

Thursday
10 p.m. Still itchy when I shut down the computer, but I am having no trouble falling asleep early.

2:30 a.m. I’m in a groove now. For the past few nights, I’ve been awakened by inspirations dancing through my brain, and I scribble them all down. Then, because I have unburdened my busy mind, I go back to sleep fairly easily.

Saturday
6 a.m. Well, good morning. Instead of struggling out of bed at 8 a.m., I’m up. Oddly, cheerily so. How bizarre. When I go downstairs, my husband, who is always on the move at this hour, eyes me with some terror. When I sing out my good morning, he looks to see what pod has taken over my body.

Monday
3 p.m. My naps have become shorter, and I am waking up from them less addled. Today I lie down and get all comfy, and . . . nothing happens. I realize I am lying down out of habit, not need. But how can I feel less sleepy by sleeping less? W. Christopher Winter, MD, medical director of the Martha Jefferson Sleep Medicine Center in Charlottesville, Virginia, explains it to me: “You are consolidating your sporadic sleep into two solid segments instead of many little ones. Fewer hours of that sleep may feel better than more hours of disrupted sleep. You may be spending less time asleep, but the quality of your sleep is much better.” Woo-hoo! Yeah, baby!

Wednesday
End of experiment. Will I stick to the biphasic schedule? Yes. I won’t be religious about it, but I really like going to bed early. Plus, there have been some subtle benefits for my marriage. Bill has gotten into the rhythm with me, which gives us more time to connect. I do have to avoid the siren call of the computer and TV as the evening progresses. And I will certainly not wake myself up if I am sleeping through the night.

But now I understand that when I do wake, it’s better not to fight my body’s natural sleep patterns. When the anxious flip-flopping starts, I will stop and do some rhythmic breathing while Thinking Lovely Thoughts. (“What’s that you say? You want to give our son a full scholarship to college for all four years? Well, aren’t you sweet!”)

First published in the June 2013 issue

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