The tale of two sleeps and my little sleep

Insomnia is something I have dealt with a lot over the years so the recent bouts I’ve had off and on for a few weeks (and steady for about a week) is not unusual for me. Since I just finished another round of the dreaded insomnia, I had found myself reading more about sleep patterns and realizing that being up for a couple hours, after 3-4 hours of sleep and going back to sleep for a couple more, as I have been doing,is not actually that unusual, or at least it wasn’t back in the “old days.”

Apparently, in the days of no electricity, people would go to bed when the sun set, sleep a few hours, and then get up in the middle of the night to engage in various activities, such as reading (if they could afford candles), tender — ahem — moments with their spouses, taking a moonlit walk, smoking tobacco, visiting neighbors (can you imagine that? Bob and Mary show up at your door at 2 a.m. and they’re not drunk looking for weed like they might be today if they stop at your house?), and praying for about an hour or two. Then they laid back down and slept for another 2 to 4 hours until sunrise.

There is even a name for this type of sleep. It is called biphasic, segmented, bimodal, or diphasic sleep and some people still sleep this way today. It is popular in Greece, from what I have read.

According to Medical News Today, “Those who practice biphasic sleep typically sleep for a long duration at night, for 5-6 hours, and have a shorter period of sleep or siesta during the day. The shorter period of rest typically lasts 30 minutes and gives an energy boost to finish the day. However, a siesta can last for longer, perhaps 90 minutes. An extended siesta of 90 minutes allows a person to have one complete cycle of sleep.”

There are many books or historical documents that refer to the two sleep periods, according to an article I read on the BBC.

  • He knew this, even in the horror with which he started from his first sleep, and threw up the window to dispel it by the presence of some object, beyond the room, which had not been, as it were, the witness of his dream.” Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge (1840)
  • “Don Quixote followed nature, and being satisfied with his first sleep, did not solicit more. As for Sancho, he never wanted a second, for the first lasted him from night to morning.” Miguel Cervantes, Don Quixote (1615)
  • “And at the wakening of your first sleepe You shall have a hott drinke made, And at the wakening of your next sleepe Your sorrowes will have a slake.” Early English ballad, Old Robin of Portingale

Some medical journals back in the 1600 to 1700s even suggested that if a couple wanted to conceive a child they — ahem — come together after the first sleep when they would be more rested, according to Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech who published a paper about biphasic sleep.

There are so many references from past literature and documents to two sleeps that it is clear it “was common knowledge” and commonly practiced Ekirch says.

As I was reading various articles, I learned that some who study sleep today believe that humans are meant to sleep a few hours at a time, wake up and stay awake, and then sleep again for another few hours. The idea of sleeping eight straight hours is fairly new, some researchers say, and also not always realistic. In many countries the idea of sleeping eight hours straight isn’t the norm.

The industrial revolution helped phase out the idea of two sleeps, mainly because there wasn’t time for it anymore. People needed their sleep to be combined so they could spend the daylight hours working in places like factories. Improvements in street lighting, lighting in the home, and a surge in coffee houses that were open all night also phased out the idea of two sleeps. Nighttime was more active now and the time for when people could engage in two separate sleeps started to disappear.

What didn’t disappear, however, was the normal human physiology we were created with, so there seem to be some people who actually function better with sleeping less at night and then taking a long nap in the daytime or laying down in the morning for a couple more hours.

Sleep psychologist Gregg Jacobs told the BBC that the idea that a person must have eight straight hours of sleep has caused a myriad of mental health issues for many people, mainly anxiety that they can’t sleep the full, non-interrupted eight hours they think they’re supposed to have. That nighttime activity often extends into daytime anxiety.

Jacobs believes that it is possible that the time between the first and second sleeps could have been a time that allowed humans to regulate stress naturally. That time is now gone because most people spend the time laying awake panicking about the sleep they are not getting.

Not too mention we now live in a world where we work or entertain ourselves late into the night, barely giving ourselves enough time to relax and fall into natural sleep, let alone enough time to actually obtain eight uninterrupted hours of sleep. We squeeze every last drop of our days out, failing to give ourselves the time to relax and be patient if we do wake up and are unable to fall right back to sleep. We lay down at 11 and expect to be up at 7 after having perfect sleep. It’s just not plausible or realistic, say many sleep specialists.

I am one of the lucky insomniacs who doesn’t work outside the home, so if I don’t get enough rest at night, I am able to lay down for an hour or two more, having a type of “second sleep.” And luckily this insomnia thing only seems to happen around a high hormonal or stressful time and not every night. I wish I could say I always stay calm during those two hours or so I am sometimes awake in the middle of the night, but I can’t. I do what many articles say not to do — I panic and think about how negatively I’ll be effected the next day by not getting enough sleep.

But knowing that it isn’t that unusual for some people to sleep in two separate periods of sleep is comforting to me on those nights I wake up after a few hours and can’t fall back to sleep. “There isn’t necessarily something wrong with my sleep, I tell myself. “I’m simply harkening back to the days of my ancestors, channeling them so-to-speak, and stealing from them a practice that most of them saw as completely normal.”

Post Script: As I am writing this P.S., I have actually had two nights in a row without laying awake for two hours for no reason at 4 a.m. or 3 a.m. So far it is looking like the magnesium glycinate I was taking to help me sleep, which has been working for months, is now doing the opposite. It was making me more alert and actually giving me the insomnia.

After a search online, it appears that this happens with some people and it may be that they build up a tolerance to it or that they were so deficient in magnesium when they first started that it lulled them into sleep but now their body is processing it better and it is going where it needs to go to make them feel better. I appear to be in the second group because even though I wasn’t sleeping last week, I was feeling better and had a clearer head than I had in months. I’m actually wondering if I am one of those people who do a little better with less sleep. If I sleep more than eight hours I often feel groggy.

I’ve decided to try to take the magnesium during the day now and guess what? It will probably make me sleepy again. That’s how things work for me.

18 thoughts on “The tale of two sleeps and my little sleep

  1. Pingback: Sunday Bookends: ‘Is that you spring?’ The ever growing To Be Read pile and Maverick | Boondock Ramblings

    • I do too! I almost never nap so I had to force myself to lay back down in the morning and asked my son to take care of his sister on the really rough days. I very rarely can nap but on those days I passed out for two hours


  2. That’s really interesting about the first and second sleeps. I didn’t know people used to do that!

    As for me, I stay up watching Netflix or whatever until midnight or 1am and then the cat decides what time I get up…somewhere between 5am and 6am. One great thing about working from home is being able to take a nap on my lunch break. Not every day, mind you, just on days when I’m suddenly SO SLEEPY and can’t keep my eyes open. A nice 20-ish minute lunch nap really hits the spot.


  3. As I’ve gotten older, I find I’m unable to sleep as well as I did. Sometimes I’m ready for bed by 7pm but am up at 4am, ready for the day. Daylight savings time always messes with my rhythm and it takes me weeks to get into a new one. I’m home full time and I’ve realized I do better at night if I nap during the day. Sometimes I find myself unable to function and I used to fight that – now I give in and nap and I’m good to go. I’m learning to listen to my body. We are off all caffeine, no coffee or soda, and no sugar. It has changed our world. Herbal teas, our “Dandy Blend” pretend coffee, and lots more water, have really changed things. So sleep less, nap more! I’m good with that!!!


  4. Hmm, interesting. I had many, many bouts of insomnia while I was going through menopause. But now I usually get a good night’s sleep, although I don’t necessarily need 8 hours each night. My problem some nights is actually falling asleep when I go to bed, unlike my hubby who is out like a light as soon as his head hits the pillow! My issue is my brain goes into overdrive and I think too much when I go to bed. 😉

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    • Overthinking at night is my issue as well. I often lay awake for a long time, but now the overthinking has started happening after I wake up to use the bathroom or after a child or pet wakes me up. I’m fairly certain I’m moving toward menopause but my one doctor said no and the new one said, “I dunno” so I just deal with it the best I can.


    • i was going to add that my husband also falls asleep very fast but lately, both he and my son have either been having issues falling asleep or they wake up in the night and can’t get back to sleep. I’m not sure what is up with our family.


  5. Fascinating!! I have never slept 8 hours straight through that I can remember. I always wake up at 2 or 3 but after 20 minutes or so I fall back asleep so I never thought about it. My mom has been suffering from insomnia for a few months and I actually had no idea people slept 8 through without waking up until she started talking about it. Lol. Maybe tonight I will get up and go visiting. Lol. And no I can’t imagine that!! I’m glad you are able to get some rest and aren’t getting too anxious when you can’t fall back asleep. 🙂


  6. This is really interesting!! Makes me feel better actually, just like you said..because I (too) tend to freak out when I wake up in the middle of the night hours thinking “oh no now I’m gonna have my day all in a bind from lack of sleep!!!”
    After reading this I’m reminded of the many times we read of Jesus going off in prayer etc in the night hours…I need to follow suit and be better about spending time in prayer when sleepless hours inevitably come!

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    • I wish I could be better about praying when I lay awake like that. I do pray some but sometimes I’ll start to pray for people and then I’ll go over everything I did wrong to that person or they did to me and my thoughts spiral out of control and I’m wide awake. So, sometimes I will put on a sermon (if I don’t think it will make me think too deep) or I will simply pray, “Jesus, help me sleep and if I don’t, help me to have energy tomorrow for the kids.”

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  7. Wow, that’s so fascinating! Melatonin had the same effect for me, making me sleepy initially, but then even more awake. I wonder if this 2-sleep process is why the Bible refers so often to being awake during the night watches? Some nights I am good at praying & resting during that time. Other nights–hmmm–not so much. Lol. Glad we can pray & understand each Other! Blessings and rest for you this week!

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    • Melatonin does that to me, as well, Bettie. I don’t get it. I’ve heard that sometimes smaller doses of it are needed for some people. Melatonin seems to help my husband get into sleep so he’s asked me to order him some. I’m going to take a break on the magnesium and then I may try it again because it was a life saver for me over the summer when I had some issues with my bladder and it was keeping me up all night. The magnesium knocked me out and I was able to sleep and I think heal my bladder from that irritation of having to go so much.

      I’m really bad about the praying when I am woken up. I need to work on it for sure.

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