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

But while researching the nightlife of pre-industrial Europe and America, he discovered the first evidence that many humans used to sleep in intervals – first sleep and second sleep with a few hours’ break in between to have sex, pray, eat, chat and take medicine.

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

His work indicates that the practice of sleeping through the night did not really end until only a few hundred years ago. It only developed thanks to the spread of electric lighting and the Industrial Revolution, with its capitalist belief that sleeping was a waste of time that could be 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 to approach and think about sleep problems.

There is value in knowing this earlier sleep pattern in the Western world. “A large number of people today suffer from midnight insomnia, which is the primary sleep disorder in the United States—and I dare say in most industrialized countries—rather than experiencing an unquoted quotation, a disturbance, that is in fact, a very strong residual experience, or an echo This previous sleep pattern,” Ekirch said.

The 8-hour sleep myth?

The first reference to biphasic sleep that Ekirch found was in a 1697 legal document from a mobile “criminal” court buried in a London registry. The filing of a 9-year-old girl named Jane Roth mentioned that her mother woke up after her “first sleep” to get out. The mother was later found dead.

“I’ve never heard the expression,” he said, “and it was expressed in a way that seemed completely natural.” “Then I started finding later references in these legal affidavits but also in other sources.”

These notes were written by historian A.  Roger Ekirch when he came across the first mention of divided sleep in a London archive office.

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

Ekirch found that by the early 19th century, the first sleep began to expand at the expense of the second sleep, the waking period. By the turn of the century, a second sleep was little more than turning one over in bed for an extra 10 minutes of snoozing.

Ben Reese, author of “Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created the Our Fake World” and professor and chair of the English department at Emory University in Atlanta, blames the Industrial Revolution and the “sleep-to-cowards” attitude it generated.

“The answer really is to follow the money. Changes in economic organization, when it has become more efficient to routineize work and to have large numbers of people appear on factory floors, at the same time and to do as much of the work as possible in as concentrated a fashion as possible.” He said.

Reese said our sleep schedule has shrunk and strengthened as a result.

The photo shows the lamp at the top of the ladder.  British streets were lit up with oil lamps until the introduction of gas lighting around 1807.

No golden age

However, pre-industrial life was not the era of the Halcyon when our ancestors would have spent their day rested and rejuvenated, undisturbed by insomnia or other sleep problems, effortlessly synchronized with the day-night cycle, weather patterns and seasons, according to Sasha Handley, a professor of history at the University of Manchester, UK. It studies how families succeeded in improving their sleep in the colonies of Britain, Ireland, and England between 1500 and 1750.

“Every discussion of sleep history seems to center around the kind of watershed moments in industrialization, the rise of electricity destroying everyone’s sleep life. The corollary of that is that anything pre-industrial was conceived of as this golden age of sleep.”

A miniature of a room from the 15th century is shown.

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

She said doctor’s manuals from that time are full of advice about how many hours to sleep and in what kind of position. The reference guides also list hundreds of sleep recipes to help you get a good night’s sleep, she said. These weird things include – cutting a pigeon in half and taping each half to each side of your head and most commonly – taking a shower in chamomile-soaked water and using lavender. People also burned certain types of wood in their bed rooms that were thought to aid sleep.

“For the period in which we live, sleep is closely related to digestion, emotion, stomach, and therefore people’s diet,” Handley said.

Doctors advised sleepers to rest first on the right side of their body before turning to the left during the second half of the night. It is believed that lying on the right, probably during the first sleep, allows food to reach the pit of the stomach, where it is digested. Moving to the left, cooler side, release the vapors and spread the heat evenly throughout the body.

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

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

Not all scholars believe that two shifts of sleep, although it may be common in some societies, was once a universal custom. A far cry from this, said Brigitte Steiger, a senior lecturer in Japanese studies at the University of Cambridge in the UK, revealing no references to divided sleep in her work on sleep habits in Japan.

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

“There is no clear difference between modern (or pre-industrial) sleep habits and modern sleep habits,” she said by email. “Sleeping habits have always changed throughout pre-industrial times and throughout the world. Of course, there has always been social diversity, and sleeping habits have been very different in the courts than they are for peasants, for example.”

Similarly, Gerrit Verhoeven, associate professor of cultural heritage and history at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, said his study of criminal court records from the 18th century in Antwerp suggested that sleep habits were not very 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 am concerned that arguments about alleged sleep patterns of the past — prolonged, phased, with daytime naps — are sometimes presented as a potential treatment for our modern sleep disorders. Before drawing such conclusions, we need to do more research on sleep patterns This early modern sleep.”

Rethink insomnia

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

He said experiments in sleep labs have shown that when humans are given the opportunity to sleep for longer, their sleep can become biphasic or even polyphasic, replicating what Ekirch has found in historical records. However, Foster, who is also the director of the Sir Jules Thorne Slip Institute and Neuroscience At Oxford, he doubted it was a sleep pattern that would happen to everyone.

He added that no one should impose a fragmented sleep regime on themselves, especially if it reduces total sleep time.

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What was clear, Foster said, was that disrupted sleep was seen as less of a problem in the past and that modern expectations about what constituted a good night’s sleep — sleeping through the night for eight hours — were not always helpful.

The point, he said, is getting up in the night doesn’t necessarily mean the end of sleep. One example he cited is more people getting up at night during lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“They’d get really anxious and worried about getting up in the middle of the night, because that’s not what they normally go through,” Foster said. He is the author of “Life Time: The New Science of the Body Clock, and How It Can I Need Your Sleep and Health,” which will be published in May 2022. Most likely, what has happened is that people sleep cycle – how much time they have To sleep – expanded and not restricted due to alarm going off.

“It’s going back to a time when I really slept more,” he said.

Foster’s research suggested that if we wake up in the night, sleep is more likely to return, if sleep is not sacrificed on social media or other behavior that makes you more alert or activates the stress response. Like most sleep experts, he recommends getting out of bed if you feel frustrated by not getting back to sleep and engaging in a relaxing activity while keeping the lights low.

He said, “Individual sleep in humans is very variable. One size does not fit all. You don’t have to worry about the type of sleep you get.”


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