How our ancestors used to sleep can help the sleep-deprived today

But while researching nocturnal life in pre-industrial Europe and America, he discovered the first evidence that many people slept in stages – a first sleep and a second sleep with a few hours’ break in between to have sex, to pray , eat, chat and take medicine.

“Here was a sleep pattern unknown to the modern world,” said Ekirch, a distinguished university professor in Virginia Tech’s history department.

The practice of sleeping through the night didn’t really catch on until a few hundred years ago, his work suggests. It only developed thanks to the spread of electric light and the Industrial Revolution, with its capitalist belief that sleep was a waste of time better spent at work.

Not only does the history of sleep reveal fascinating details about everyday life in the past, but the work of Ekirch and other historians and anthropologists is helping sleep scientists gain a new perspective on what constitutes a good night’s sleep. It also offers new ways of dealing with and thinking about sleep problems.

It’s valuable to know about this earlier sleep pattern in the western world, Ekirch said. He is convinces “a large number of people who now suffer from middle-of-the-night insomnia, the primary sleep disorder in the United States — and dare I say in most industrialized countries — rather than an uncited disorder, actually experience a very strong remnant or experience an echo of that earlier sleep pattern,” said Ekirch, who emphasized that he was speaking from a historical perspective and not as a doctor.

Adults need more than seven hours of sleep a night, but more than a third of American adults don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Myth of the 8-hour sleep?

The first reference to biphasic sleep that Ekirch found was in a 1697 legal document from a traveling Assizes court buried in a London archive. Testimony from a 9-year-old girl named Jane Rowth mentioned that her mother woke up after her “first sleep” to go out. The mother was later found dead.

“I had never heard the expression, and it was expressed in a way that seemed completely normal,” he said. “Then I started to come across later clues in these court statements, but also in other sources.”

These are notes by historian A. Roger Ekirch when he encountered the first reference to segmented sleep in a London archival office.

Ekirch then found several references to a “first” and “second” sleep in diaries, medical texts, works of literature and prayer books. A 16th-century French physician’s handbook advised couples that the best time to conceive was not at the end of a long day, but “after the first sleep,” when “they get more pleasure” and “do better.”

By the early 1800s, however, Ekirch found that first sleep had expanded at the expense of second sleep and the intervening waking phase. By the end of the century, second sleep was little more than turning over in bed and dozing for another 10 minutes.

Ben Reiss, author of “Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World” and professor and chair of the English Department at Emory University in Atlanta, blames the industrial revolution and the “sleep is for wimps” attitude that it created.

“The answer really is to follow the money. Changes in economic organization as it became more efficient to make work routine and have large numbers of people show up on factory floors at once and do as much work as concentrated as possible,” Reiss said.

Our sleep schedule was squeezed and consolidated as a result, Reiss said.

The picture shows a lamplighter on a ladder.  British streets were lit with oil lamps until the introduction of gas lighting around 1807.

No golden age

However, pre-industrial life was not a happy era when our ancestors went about their day rested and rejuvenated, undisturbed by insomnia or other sleep problems, effortlessly in tune with the cycle of day and night, weather patterns, and seasons, according to Sasha Handley, a professor of history from the University of Manchester in the UK. She examines how families in the American colonies of Great Britain, Ireland and England between 1500 and 1750 optimized their sleep.

“Every discussion of the history of sleep seemed to revolve around some kind of turning point in industrialization when the advent of electricity ruined everyone’s sleep life. As a result, everything pre-industrial was seen as that golden age of sleep.”

A room miniature from the 15th century is shown.

Handley said her research found that just as it is today, sleep is linked to physical and mental health and is a topic people worry about and obsess over.

Doctors’ manuals from that time are full of advice on how many hours to sleep and what position to sleep in, she said. The reference guides also list hundreds of sleep recipes to support a good night’s sleep, she said. These include the bizarre – cutting a dove in half and gluing each half to each side of your head, and the more familiar – bathing in chamomile-infused water and using lavender. People also burned certain types of wood in their sleeping chambers, which were thought to aid sleep.

“For our period, sleep is very strongly linked to people’s digestion, emotions, stomach, and therefore nutrition,” Handley said.

Doctors advised sleepers to rest on the right side of their body first before turning to their left side during the second half of the night. Resting on the right side, perhaps during the first sleep, should allow food to reach the pit of the stomach where it has been digested. Turn to the left, cooler side, releasing vapors and distributing heat evenly throughout the body.

It is believed that this habit may be the origin of the phrase about getting up on the wrong side.

This is a woodcut of a dreaming fisherman, circa 1700, Japan.  The artist is unknown.

Not all scholars believe that sleeping in two shifts, while perhaps common in some communities, was once a universal habit. Far from it, said Brigitte Steger, a lecturer in Japanese Studies at the University of Cambridge in the UK, who found no evidence of segmented sleep in her work on sleep patterns in Japan.

“There is no such thing as natural sleep. Sleep has always been cultural, social and ideological,” says Steger, who is working on a series of six books on the cultural history of sleep.

“There’s not such a clear difference between pre-modern (or pre-industrial) and modern sleeping habits,” she said via email. “And sleeping habits in pre-industrial times and around the world have always changed. And of course there was always social diversity, and the sleeping habits at court were very different from those of the peasants, for example.”

Similarly, Gerrit Verhoeven, assistant professor of heritage and history at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, said his study of criminal court records from 18th-century Antwerp suggests that sleeping habits are not so different from ours today. Seven hours of sleep was the norm, and there was no mention of the first or second sleep.

“As a historian, I worry that arguments about supposed sleep patterns in the past — prolonged, intermittent, and with daytime naps — are sometimes presented as a possible cure for our modern sleep disorders. Before I jump to such conclusions, we need to do a lot more research on these early modern sleep patterns,” he said.

Rethinking insomnia

Russell Foster, professor of circadian neuroscience at the University of Oxford, said Ekirch’s findings on biphasic sleep, while not without controversy, influenced his work as a sleep scientist.

Experiments in sleep labs have shown that when people are given the opportunity to sleep longer, their sleep can become biphasic or even polyphasic, modeled on Ekirch’s findings in historical records. However, Foster, who is also director of the Sir Jules Thorn Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at Oxford, doubted it was a sleep pattern that would apply to everyone.

No one should self-impose a regime of segmented sleep, especially if it leads to a reduction in overall sleep time, he added.

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What’s clear, Foster said, is that disrupted sleep has historically been seen as less of a problem, and that modern expectations of what constitutes a good night’s sleep — getting eight straight hours of sleep — have not always been helpful.

He said an important point is that waking up in the night doesn’t have to mean the end of sleep. One example he cited was more people waking up at night during lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“They get terribly anxious and worried about waking up in the middle of the night because they don’t usually experience that,” Foster said. who is also the author of Life Time: The New Science of the Body Clock, and How It Can Revolutionize Your Sleep and Health, to be published in May 2022. What was more likely was that people’s sleep episode – how much time they were given to sleep – had expanded and wasn’t constrained by a ringing alarm clock.

“It’s a throwback to a time when we really got more sleep,” he said.

When we wake up at night, sleep is likely to return if sleep isn’t sacrificed to social media or other behaviors that make you more alert or activate a stress response, Foster’s research has suggested. Like most sleep experts, he recommended getting up when you’re frustrated at not being able to get back to sleep and engaging in a relaxing activity while keeping the lights down.

“People’s individual sleeps are so different. One size doesn’t fit all. You shouldn’t worry about the kind of sleep you’re getting,” he said.

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