Sleep Care

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Has Sleep Changed Over the Centuries?

Eight hours of uninterrupted sleep may be a relatively new concept?


It happens all the time. You wake up in the middle of the night for no apparent reason. You toss

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and turn and try desperately to go back to sleep. Then, just as you doze off, it feels like the alarm blares in your ear.

You immediately blame stress at work, but science suggests you might be experiencing something know as a default sleep pattern. In fact, according to several studies, the concept of a solid eight hours of sleep is a fairly recent phenomenon. Our ancestors may have actually enjoyed “two sleeps” each shorter in length. These shorter sleeps were separated by time awake as opposed to sleeping one sustained period of time.

One of the first to discover this pattern was psychiatrist Thomas Wehr. In the early 1900s, he took a group of participants and put them in the dark for 14 hours every day for a month. What he found was they fell into a distinct pattern of sleeping for four hours before waking for one or two and then sleeping an additional four. So they slept eight hours, but not in one sold chunk of time. Since then, Roger Ekirch, the author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past has discovered that having two sleeping sessions was considered the norm.

Though it’s not considered normal to us today, references to two sleeps can be found as far back as the Old Testament and Homer’s Odyssey. Additionally, countless prayer journals from the late 15th century offered special prayers for the hours in between sleeps. And, in France in the 16th century couples were told the best time to conceive was after the “first sleep.” But, with the introduction of modern conveniences like lighting, the distinction between daytime and nighttime activities and sleep patterns soon followed.

Today, sleep scientists are just beginning to understand the connections of human history and insomnia. For instance, many people have been able to consolidate sleep and there are others who have not. Could the inability to sleep eight hours straight be a thing from the past?

Most sleep experts agree that the best thing you can do if you are having trouble staying asleep throughout the night is not worry about it. Instead, if you find you don’t easily drift back to sleep, try a low stimulus activity like meditating or reading for an hour or two rather than fretting about your sleep loss. Instead, give yourself a break. Just recognizing that waking in the middle of

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the night might actually be normal can do wonders for the anxiety you feel over sleep loss.

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