Have you ever woken up around 3AM, completely lucid, and wondered what the heck is going on? I have, and for years I wondered if this sort of sleep disturbance was due to poor diet, lack of exercise, or too much caffeine. The thing is, whenever I did wake up in the middle of the night for a few minutes at random, it was always when I was at my healthiest. I was following a solid sleep schedule, eating fairly well, and exercising regularly. So what gives?
Waking up in the Middle of the Night is Natural
Science is beginning to suggest that waking up in the middle of the night is actually the norm. The idea is that before the Industrial Revolution with its streetlights and 40-hour workweeks, our ancestors naturally woke up in the middle of the night for about an hour, read a book by candle light, visited relatives, checked on the cows, or robbed their neighbors. Then they crept back into bed and slept until sunrise.
You may be skeptical, as I was, but there are three things backing up this theory:
- Scientific Studies
- Historical Evidence
- Your Own Experiments
That last one I’ll get to later. But first, let’s look at the science.
Study Confirms Bi-Phasic Sleep in Humans
In 2009, Dr. Thomas A Wehr conducted a study in which he put subjects in an environment where they received 10 hours of light per day as opposed to the 16 most of us get due to artificial lighting. As a result:
When normal individuals were transferred from a conventional 16-h photoperiod to an experimental 10-h photo-period, their sleep episodes expanded and usually divided into two symmetrical bouts, several hours in duration, with a 1–3 h waking interval between them. The durations of nocturnal melatonin secretion and of the nocturnal phase of rising sleepiness (measured in a constant routine protocol) also expanded, indicating that the timing of internal processes that control sleep and melatonin, such as circadian rhythms, had been modified by the change in photoperiod.
In other words, with the artificial light taken away, the test subjects naturally began waking up in the middle of the night by no doing of their own. Also note the second sentence about melatonin–a hormone involved in making us drowsy. If the secretion of one hormone could change based upon following a more natural light-exposure pattern, could others? (A subject for another upcoming post!)
Further studies suggest that the time-honored tradition of the siesta should also have a prominent role in our daily routine, as it can reduce stress levels and leave one feeling more refreshed throughout the day.
Historical Evidence for Diurnal Sleep
Around the same time Dr. Wehr was conducting his sleep study, a professor of history at Virginia Tech began noticing a peculiar pattern in various old texts: many of them referenced two phases of sleep. Professor Roger Ekirch cites a few examples, including this quote from Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” written in 1475:
She had no wish both pale and wan to be,
Nor jaded the next morn, for all to see –
And slept her first sleep, and then awoke.
For such a joy in her heart now spoke,
First Sleep? Sounds like something out of the Lord of the Rings, where Hobbits are known to have First and Second Breakfast. But its references like these that led Professor Ekirch to believe that pre-Industrial Revolution sleep was not the typical eight-hour block that we’re used to.
Try it Yourself
Now, if you’re sitting there saying “so what?” perhaps a little experiment is in order. I believe that settling into a more segmented sleep pattern is a sign of health, and promotes it.
In order to try sleeping as they did in the days of old, you will need (along with a wholesome diet and regular exercise):
- Blackout Curtains (affiliate link)
- Night Lights and/or Candles
- Discipline to Go to Bed on Time
That last one is probably the most difficult, but when you start making it a routine, it will come easier.
- Install blackout curtains in your bedroom. Not only do these help you to sleep properly, but they can also save you a lot of money on your heating bills.
- Avoid bright lights after sunset. This is pretty difficult, the first thing most of us want to do when we get home from a long day of work is switch on Hulu. But persevere (and read a book). This is where the candles and night lights come in. Obviously you need some light (as our ancestors had in the form of candles and fireplaces), but bright blue light from computer screens, cell phone, and fluorescent bulbs inhibits the production of that sleep hormone we talked about earlier, melatonin.
- Go to bed and wake-up at the same time, every day, and give yourself enough time for it. I recommend allotting yourself a solid nine hours a day for your experiment. That leaves you enough time to fall asleep, and it has time built in to your evening for the middle of the night wakefulness.
I think you’ll quickly find that you start waking up in the middle of the night, as I do, in a sort of calm, meditative yet lucid state. This is an excellent time for writing or praying. I wouldn’t recommend watching TV or looking at your phone at this time, as it might keep you from falling back to sleep.
You’ll likely also find yourself waking up just before your alarm (more on that in a future post), and having more energy throughout the day. I suppose the real question is, will society ever adopt this form of sleep again? Or are we now wedded to the idea of an unnatural 8-hour sleep cycle, supplemented with bright artificial light and large quantities of caffeine? I hope it is the former!
Do you wake up in the middle of the night? Let us know in the comments!