Is Your “Weird” Sleep Normal? History Says Yes.
According to the National Institute of Health, sufficient sleep is required to keep your brain working well and to protect your physical health. It’s when you are asleep that the brain is forming new pathways to help you learn and remember. It’s also when your body is most involved in healing and repair of your heart and blood vessels. Chronic sleep deficiency is tied to heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. It even increases the likelihood that you will become obese.
We’ve long known that between 7 and 8 hours of sleep seems to be ideal. Most of us assume that means we need about 8 uninterrupted hours if we’re going to feel our best, but at least one researcher is saying we may be wrong.
Roger Ekrich has built his career in research on the history of sleep. He’s found ample documentation that shows that the idea that we need to sleep uninterrupted may just be a modern invention.
Ekrich’s research describes what he calls “segmented sleep.”
He argues that segmented sleep, not uninterrupted sleep, may have been the norm in the past. His data is based on historical references to two period of sleep each night: the first called “first sleep” or “dead sleep” and the second called “second sleep” or “morning sleep.”
The documentation refers to a first sleep beginning about two hours after dark, continuing for three or four hours, waking for an hour or two, and then sleeping again until morning.
The existence of the segmented sleep pattern may have been to be related to the lack of artificial light. When households began to have sufficient lamplight so that people could be actively engaged after dark, they began to begin sleep later and the pattern of broken sleep started to decline.
But why should we think that “segmented sleep” might be normal for us?
The idea that this pattern may be normal is confirmed by studies that show that participants who are kept in the dark for 14 hours a day seem to begin to settle into a segmented sleep pattern.
Why does it matter what’s “normal”?
The perception of what is normal in sleep is important. Many patients seek a doctor’s help when they feel they are not sleeping normally. According to an NIH study, even children are affected by this vision of normalcy. In 10 years, approximately 18.6 million doctor visits occurred for sleep-related difficulties in children. Eighty-one percent of those visits resulted in a prescription for a sleep medication. If broken sleep is “normal,” seeking medical help for it may be a mistake.