Why Do We Sleep Poorly? Our Ancestors Have the Answer
We are always recommended to sleep 7 to 8 uninterrupted hours a day in order to get a good quality sleep that will also contribute to a better quality of life. This recommendation makes us worry when we wake up in the middle of the night and cannot fall back asleep in one or two hours. It makes us ask ourselves why we sleep poorly. However, what we considered a sleep “alteration” up to now, can be something more natural than what you think and can even be beneficial.
In the early 90’s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr carried out an investigation in which a group of people were exposed to darkness for 14 hours everyday for a month. It took a little bit to get results but, in the fourth week of the investigation, they could determine that their sleep patterns had changed. Despite all of them being used to sleeping more than 6 hours in a row, in the fourth week of the study they slept for 4 hours, then were awake for 1 or 2 hours, and then fell back sleep for 4 hours.
The results of the study left an impression on many sleep scientists, but they still think that it’s best to keep the habit of sleeping 8 uninterrupted hours a day.
Sleeping Habits Changed Over Time…In 2001, the historian Roger Ekirch from the Virginia Tech University published a 15 year research paper that revealed historical evidence that proved that human beings tended to sleep in two distinct phases.
In 2005, he published a book called “At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past” that included around 500 references of a segmented sleep pattern. These references included diaries, medicine and literature books, and other sources like Homer’s Odyssey and Nigerian tribes.
This long investigation could show that human beings are not always capable of sleeping 8 hours in a row, uninterrupted. Instead it suggested that for many people it is easier to sleep in shorter periods throughout the night, which add up to the hours recommended by experts.
In the old days, the sleeping pattern started with 3 or 4 hours of sleep, followed by 2 or 3 hours of being awake, and then continued sleep until the early hours of the morning. All of this was done in a time period of 12 hours, which was normal to get proper rest. However, at the end of the seventeenth century, this sleeping pattern started to change and they started to adopt the habit that we all know today.
According to Ekirch’s investigations, the two-phase sleeping pattern started to disappear in the upper urban classes in northern Europe in the seventeenth century. Then, in a time period of 200 years, it reached the rest of Western society. By the 1920’s, the idea of having two short periods of sleep at night had completely disappeared.
To some experts, segmented sleep is natural in the body and many people still experience it frequently at night. According to Ekirch’s conclusions from his years of research, many of our sleeping problems could be due to the human body’s preference of two-phase segmented sleep. To support this, Ekirch used the fact that at the end of the nineteenth century, what we know today as “sleep insomnia maintenance” began to occur, which is a problem in which people wake up in the middle of the night and have difficulty falling back asleep. This happened right when the segmented sleep pattern started to disappear.
According to psychologist Greg Jacobs, the idea of one long sleep instead of segmenting it could become harmful, because some people could wake up in the middle of the night, full of anxiety, which can prevent them from falling back asleep and make them stay awake all night.
In the old days, the time between sleep was used to meditate on dreams, read, pray, or do spiritual practices. Jacobs considers these types of activities to be key in regulating stress naturally. For that reason, now it is not rare for people to suffer from more anxiety, stress, depression, or alcoholism, especially if you keep in mind that technology has also changed peoples’ sleeping habits.