How our ancestors slept can help today’s sleep deprived

But while researching the nightlife in pre-industrial Europe and America, he found the first evidence that many humans slept in segments – a first sleep and a second sleep with a few hour break in between to have intercourse. sex, praying, eating, chatting and taking medicine.

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

The practice of sleeping through the night didn’t really take hold until a few hundred years ago, his work suggested. It only evolved through the spread of electric lighting and the industrial revolution, with its capitalist belief that sleep was a waste of time that was best spent on work.

The history of sleep not only reveals fascinating details about daily 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 issues.

It is helpful to know about this earlier sleep pattern in the western world. “A large number of people today who suffer from nocturnal insomnia, the main sleep disorder in the United States – and dare I say it in most industrialized countries – rather than experiencing in quotes, disorder, are in actually, experiencing a very powerful holdover, or an echo of that earlier sleep pattern, ”Ekirch said.

The 8-hour sleep myth?

The first reference to biphasic sleep found by Ekirch was in a 1697 legal document from a traveling assize court buried in a London registry office. The testimony of 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 such a way that it sounded perfectly normal,” he said. “I then began to encounter later references in these legal depositions but also in other sources.”

These are notes taken by historian A. Roger Ekirch when he came across the first reference to segmented sleep in a London archives office.

Ekirch subsequently found multiple references to a “first” and “second” sleep in diaries, medical texts, literary works, and prayer books. A 16th century physician’s manual in France advised couples that the best time to conceive was not at the end of a long day but “after their first sleep”, when “they have more fun” and “do it. better”.

By the beginning of the 19th century, however, the first sleep had started to expand at the expense of the second sleep, Ekirch found, and the intervening wakefulness period. By the turn of the century, the second sleep was roughly rolling over in bed for an additional 10 minutes of nap.

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 she fathered.

“The answer is really to follow the money. Changes in the economic organization, when it has become more efficient to rout the work and to have a large number of people showing up in factories, at the same time and doing the same work as concentrated as possible “, Reiss noted.

As a result, our sleep schedule has been compressed and consolidated, Reiss said.

The image shows a lamp igniter on top of a ladder.  British streets were lit by oil lamps until the introduction of gas lighting around 1807.

No golden age

However, pre-industrial life was not a peaceful era where our ancestors spent their days well rested and rejuvenated, unmoved by insomnia or other sleep problems, effortlessly synchronizing with the cycle of night and sleep. day, weather conditions and seasons, according to Sasha Handley, a history professor at the University of Manchester in the UK. She studies how families optimized their sleep in Britain, Ireland and the American colonies of England between 1500 and 1750.

“Every discussion of the history of sleep seemed to focus on the kind of watershed moment in industrialization, the arrival of electricity ruining everyone’s lives while asleep. The corollary of this is that whatever is pre-industrial was imagined as this golden age of sleep. “

A 15th century miniature of one piece is shown.

Handley said his research suggested, just like today, that sleep is linked to physical and mental health and is a topic that worries and obsesses people.

The then doctor’s textbooks are chock-full of advice on how many hours to sleep and in what type of posture, she said. The reference guides also list hundreds of sleep recipes to facilitate a good night’s sleep, she said. These include the odd – cutting a pigeon in half and gluing each half on either side of your head and the most familiar – bathing in chamomile infused water and using lavender. People also burned specific types of wood in their bedrooms, which were believed to aid sleep.

“For our period, sleep is very strongly linked to digestion, to emotions, to the stomach and therefore to what people eat,” Handley said.

Doctors advised sleepers to rest on the right side of their body first before turning to the left side for the second half of the night. Resting on the right, perhaps during the first sleep, allowed the food to reach the pit of the stomach, where it was digested. Turning to the left, the cooler side, releases vapors and distributes heat evenly throughout the body.

It is believed that this habit could be the origin of the phrase “getting out of bed on the wrong side”.

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

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

“Natural sleep doesn’t exist. Sleep has always been cultural, social and ideological,” said Steger, who is working on a six-book series on the cultural history of sleep.

“There is not such a clear difference between premodern (or pre-industrial) and modern sleep patterns,” she said by email. “And sleep patterns in pre-industrial times and around the world have always changed. And, of course, there has always been social diversity, and sleep patterns have been very different at court than among peasants, for example.”

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

“As a historian, I am concerned that arguments about alleged sleep patterns in the past – prolonged, phased, and with daytime naps – are sometimes presented as a possible cure for our sleep disturbances. Before drawing 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, informed his work as a sleep scientist.

Experiments in sleep labs have shown that when humans are given the opportunity to sleep longer, he said, their sleep can become biphasic or even polyphasic, replicating what Ekirch found in historical documents. However, Foster, who is also the director of the Sir Jules Thorn Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute in Oxford, doubted that this was a sleep pattern that would occur for everyone.

No one should impose themselves on a segmented sleep regimen, especially if it resulted in a reduction in total sleep time, he added.

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What was clear, Foster said, was that interrupted sleep was seen as a less serious problem in the past, and modern expectations of what constitutes a good night’s sleep – sleeping through the night for eight hours – n were not always helpful.

He said a key point was that waking up at night didn’t necessarily mean the end of sleep. One example he cited was more people waking up at night during shutdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“They will become terribly anxious and worried about waking up in the middle of the night because that is not what they normally feel,” 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,” which will be released in May 2022. More likely, what happened was this episode of people’s sleep – how much time they had to sleep – had stretched out and was not limited by an alarm clock ringing.

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

If we wake up at night, sleep is likely to return, if sleep isn’t sacrificed for 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 out of bed if you’re frustrated with not falling back to sleep and engaging in some relaxing activity while keeping the lights low.

“Individual sleep in humans is so variable. One size doesn’t fit all. You shouldn’t worry about what kind of sleep you get,” he said.