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There are many books or historical documents that refer to the two sleep periods, according to an article I read on the BBC.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