Sleep Disorders

Updated 15 January 2015

Are our sleep patterns completely wrong?

If you tend to wake up in the middle of the night, don’t be alarmed. This might be exactly what your body is meant to do.


As humans, one of our fundamental needs is getting sufficient sleep. But try as we may, some of us just can’t sleep all the way through the recommended 6 to 8 hours per night, causing us to suspect insomnia, anxiety and other health problems.

If you’re one of these people, you might be surprised to learn that, according to some research, these waking periods may be a very natural, healthy response.

“Segmented” or “biphasic” sleep, where one sleeps in two phases during the night, could suit the human body better than trying to sleep in one long stretch.

How humans slept centuries ago

Sleep deprivation is an extremely common problem that’s been pushing sleep experts worldwide to seek alternative ways of getting a good night’s rest.

In his own search for alternative sleep practices, Virginia Tech University anthropologist and historian Prof Roger Ekirch did a 16-year-long research project on the sleeping patterns of people some 600 years ago. He found that, back then, sleeping in stages was the norm.

In his book, At Day's Close: Night in Times Past (2001), Ekirch reveals a wealth of historical evidence that humans used to sleep in two distinct chunks.

Read: Are you sleep deprived?

“Homer and Chaucer both refer to the ancient practice of a short ‘fyrste sleep’ at dusk, after which people awoke and talked, read, prayed, had sex, brewed beer or pondered their dreams before a second sleep till dawn,” Ekirch writes.

At the time, Ekirch’s research attracted much interest from international sleep scientists. However, some experts voiced their concern that sleep patterns from six centuries ago might not be applicable to modern times.

A case in point

So, to investigate the benefits of segmented sleep in modern times, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr left a group of study participants in a dark environment for 14 hours a day for a study period of one month. The subjects were allowed to sleep as often as they wanted to.

Although adapting to the new sleep environment was difficult at first, by the fourth week, the test subjects remarkably started sleeping in segments: they first slept for 4 hours, then awoke for 1 - 2 hours, and finally slept again for another 4-hour segment.

In his published results, Homeostatic Regulation of REM Sleep in Humans during Extended Sleep published in Sleep in 1998, Wehr concluded that biphasic sleeping is the most natural sleep pattern, and that it may be beneficial, rather than a form of insomnia.

Read: Do you struggle to get enough sleep at night?

He also deduced that modern humans are chronically sleep-deprived, which may be why we usually take only 15 minutes to fall asleep, and why we try our best not to wake up in the night.

Ekirch’s writings echo these findings: “A glance through history books... shows that our idea of an 8-hour sleep is actually very recent and only came about with gas-lighting and industrialisation in the late 18th century. Before this, people did what many insomniacs still do: they had two sleeps.”

Advice from a sleep expert

With the advent of artificial light, manufacturing and the “working week”, sleep evolved into a fixed period of 6 to 8 hours in one long sleep period every 24 hours, according to Dr Irshaad Ebrahim, a neuropsychiatrist at the London Sleep Centre.

But this doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do it.

From a sleep biology perspective, the brain does need between 6 to 8 hours of sleep every 24 hours, Dr Ebrahim says. “But as long as one gets the requisite amount of the different types of sleep, the benefits (of segmented sleep) should be the same as having sleep in a single sleep period.”

Read: Do you know that stress and lack of sleep can compromise your immune system?

Unfortunately, many of us don’t have the luxury of being able to go to sleep as the sun sets and waking up at dawn, with an hour or two of leisurely activity in the middle of the night. So, if you’re still struggling to get a good night’s rest, the following tips may help:

•    Set consistent sleep and wake schedules, even over weekends.
•    Create a regular, relaxing routine (a hot bath or listening to soothing music) at least an hour or more before getting into bed.
•    Keep your bedroom as dark as possible, and also quiet, comfortable and cool.
•    Invest in a comfortable mattress and pillows.
•    Keep “sleep thieves” (TVs, tablets and computers) out of the bedroom.
•    Have your last meal at least 2 - 3 hours before bedtime.
•    Go for a leisurely stroll after dinner.
•    Exercise regularly.
•    Don’t have caffeine or alcohol before bedtime.
•    Quit smoking.

REMEMBER: Speak to your doctor or contact a sleep centre in your area if your sleep problem persists. There may be a relatively simple solution.

Read More:
New technology may give you a better night's sleep
Tossing and turning? Do you really need sleeping pills?
Sleep deprivation tied to anxiety

Sources: Medical Journal of Australia; National Sleep Foundation

Image: Woman cannot sleep from Shutterstock


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Sleep disorders expert

Dr Alison Bentley is a general practitioner who has consulted in sleep medicine and sleep disorders, in both adults and children of all ages, for almost 30 years. She also researches and publishes on a number of sleep-related topics both in formal research journals and lay publications including as editor of Sleep Matters, an educational newsletter on sleep disorders for doctors.

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