We often worry about lying awake in the middle of the night–but it could be good for you. It turns out that the often recommended straight eight hours of sleep may actually be unnatural. Numerous literary and scientific writings from the past refer to a first sleep which began about two hours after dusk (before we had electric lights), followed by a waking period of one or two hours and then a second sleep when darkness finally fell.
As recently as 2001, historian Roger Ekirch published a paper, compiled from 16 years of research, giving historical evidence that humans used to sleep in two distinct sections. In BBC News, Stephanie Hegarty quotes Ekirch as saying, "It’s not just the number of references–it is the way they refer to it, as if it was common knowledge." In other words, in the past it was just assumed that everyone did it that way.
Hegarty writes: "During this waking period people were quite active. They often got up, went to the toilet or smoked tobacco and some even visited neighbors. Most people stayed in bed, read, wrote and often prayed. Countless prayer manuals from the late 15th Century offered special prayers for the hours in between sleeps.
"A doctor’s manual from 16th Century France even advised couples that the best time to conceive was not at the end of a long day’s labor but ‘after the first sleep,’ when ‘they have more enjoyment’ and ‘do it better.’" This makes sense for modern doctors, who have learned that a man’s testosterone tends to peak at around 4 a.m.
Hegarty quotes psychologist Gregg Jacobs as saying, "For most of evolution we slept a certain way. Waking up during the night is part of normal human physiology."
Jacobs thinks that the idea that we must sleep in a single block of 8 hour time could even be damaging, if it makes people who wake up at night anxious, since this anxiety can cause insomnia.
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