Nobody questions the importance of getting enough sleep. At minimum, it’s essential for rejuvenating the mind and revitalizing the body. But, what is enough? And what does it look like? Many people find they wake during the night and wonder if they’re suffering from a sleep disorder or other health issue. While that could be totally possible, it’s also possible that sleep may not be an all-night thing. In fact, historical records, centuries-old literature, and ancient references to sleep are all revealing a whole new way we should be looking at how we slumber.
Segmented Sleep: More Normal Than You Realize
If waking up during the night is a frequent “problem” for you, you might wonder if you’re suffering from insomnia or sleep apnea. “Segmented sleep” is a seemingly irregular sleep pattern that may not be a disorder at all, but a natural biological response that we, in modern times, have forgotten.
English scholar Roger Ekirch cemented the idea that our ancestors used to naturally “practice” segmented sleep, using their middle-of-the-night waking hours to pray, meditate, or finish chores around the home. Roger Ekirch found references to “first sleep” and “second sleep” in literature, legal documents, and even letters written before the Industrial Revolution. The in-between hour or hours were usually spent in prayer, and many find it to be one of the most relaxing periods. This may be because this middle period between first sleep and second sleep is around midnight where the brain produces prolactin, a hormone that supports a feeling of relaxation.
Before Reaching for That Sleeping Pill, Consider This
Our natural biorhythms are governed by exposure to light and darkness. Before the introduction of the lightbulb, almost everyone scheduled their day around the rising and setting of the sun. When the sun rose in the morning, so did humans, and when the sun hit the horizon in the evening, we more than likely went to sleep around the same time. Our brain produces serotonin in response to sunlight, and this neurotransmitter provides an energetic, wakeful feeling.  In contrast, when we’re exposed to darkness–meaning no artificial light whatsoever–our brain produces sleep-regulating melatonin. Computers, television screens, smartphones, tablets, and every other source of light in the evening hours is artificially extending our waking hours and interfering with our neurochemistry.
Because of this, it is possible that the practice of segmented sleep naturally fell away from public knowledge. We stay up longer, produce serotonin when we’re not supposed to, and eat less-than-ideal food. All of which could be the reason why we usually sleep throughout the night without waking and view this as normal. Even most medical professionals and sleep specialists have never heard of segmented sleep and aren’t trained to handle this natural occurrence. So if this is happening to you, do a little more research into segmented sleep and its possible benefits before you reach for a sleeping pill. You may be more in tune with your ancestral rhythms than most people.
Do you wake up in the middle of the night? What do you do during that time? We’d love to hear your thoughts and insight!
- A. Roger Ekirch. Sleep We Have Lost: Pre-Industrial Slumber in the British Isles. Am Hist Rev. 2001;106(2):343-86.
- Simon N. Young. How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. J Psychiatry Neurosci. 2007 Nov; 32(6): 394-399.