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

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

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

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

The history of sleep not only reveals fascinating details about past everyday life, but the work of Ekirch, along with other historians and anthropologists, is helping sleep scientists Get a fresh look at what makes for a good night’s sleep. It also provides new ways to cope and think about sleep problems.

It is valuable to know about previous sleep patterns in the Western world. “A large number of people today suffer from insomnia in the middle of the night, the original sleep disorder in the United States – and dare I assert in most industrialized countries – rather than experiencing an unquoted quote. lead, disorder, is in fact experiencing a very strong remnant, or echo, of this earlier sleep pattern,” says Ekirch.

A panel from a medieval stained-glass church window depicts a sleeping couple.

The myth of 8 hours sleep?

The first reference to biphasic sleep that Ekirch found was in a 1697 legal document from an itinerant court “Assizes” buried in a London recording office. The account of a 9-year-old girl named Jane Rowth mentions that her mother woke up from her “first sleep” to go outside. The mother was later found dead.

“I have never heard this expression, and it is presented in such a way that it seems completely normal,” he said. “Then I began to find further references in these legal documents as well as other sources.”

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

Ekirch later found numerous references to “first” and “second” sleep in diaries, medical texts, literary works, and prayer books. A 16th-century French physician’s manual advises couples that the best time to conceive is not at the end of a long day but “after the first sleep”, when “they have a lot of excitement”. better” and “do it better”.

By the early 19th century, however, the first sleep had begun to expand with the second, Ekirch found, and was an alternating period of wakefulness. By the end of this century, a second sleep is more than just rolling over in bed for another 10 minutes to snooze.

Ben Reiss, author of “Wild Nights: How Domesticated Sleep Created Our Restless World“and professor and dean of the English department at Emory University in Atlanta, blames the Industrial Revolution and the ‘sleep is for the bad guys’ attitude it created.

“The real answer is to go after the money. Changes in economic organization, as it became more efficient at improving work and more people showed up on the factory floors at the same time and worked. as much work as possible , “Re-release speak.

As a result, our sleep schedules are squeezed and consolidated, says Reiss.

The image shows a light shining up a ladder.  Streets in England were lit with kerosene lamps until the advent of gas lighting around 1807.

There is no golden age

However, pre-industrial life was not the Halcyon era when our ancestors went through their day well rested and rejuvenated, without insomnia or other sleep problems, easily syncing up. set with night and day cycles, weather patterns and seasons, says Sasha Handley, a history professor at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. She studies how the family optimize their sleep in England, Ireland, and the British colonies in America between 1500 and 1750.

“Every discussion of the history of sleep seems to center around the watershed moment of industrialization, the introduction of electricity destroying everyone’s sleep lives. The consequence of that is anything anything pre-industrial is envisioned as the golden age of sleep.”

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

Handley says her research shows that, like today, sleep is linked to physical and mental health and is a subject of anxiety and phobia.

Doctor’s guidelines for this timing are full of advice on how many hours to sleep and in what position, she says. The reference guide also lists hundreds of recipes to help you get a good night’s sleep, she says. These include the exotic – cutting a pigeon in half and sticking each half to each side of your head and the more familiar – bathing in water soaked in chamomile and using lavender. People also burn specific types of wood in their bedrooms that are said to promote sleep.

“For our period, sleep is closely linked to digestion, emotions, the stomach, and thus influences our diets,” says Handley.

Doctors recommend that early sleepers rest on the right side of the body before turning to the left side in the second half of the night. Lying on the right side, perhaps during the first sleep, is thought to allow food to go to the pit of the stomach, where it is digested. Turn to the left, the cooler side, the steam escapes and distributes heat evenly throughout the body.

It is thought that this habit may be the source of the saying about getting out of bed in the wrong position.

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

Not all scholars believe that double-shift sleeping, while perhaps common in some communities, was once a common practice. That’s far from it, said Brigitte Steger, a senior lecturer in Japanese studies at the University of Cambridge in the UK, who didn’t spot any references to segmented sleep in the study. save her Japanese sleeping habits.

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

“There is no such obvious difference between pre-modern (or pre-industrial) sleep habits,” she said by email. “And sleeping habits throughout pre-industrial times and around the world were constantly changing. And, of course, society was always diverse, and sleeping habits in court were very different from those of the peasants. ”

Similarly, Gerrit Verhoeven, an assistant professor of cultural and historical heritage at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, says research criminal court records From the 18th century, Antwerp suggested that sleeping habits weren’t too different from ours today. Seven hours of sleep is the norm and does not refer to the first or second sleep.

“As a historian, I am concerned that arguments over supposed sleep patterns of the past – prolonged, staged, and napping during the day – are sometimes presented as a method of conditioning. possible treatment for our modern sleep disorder. Before drawing such a conclusion, we must do a lot more research on these early modern sleep patterns,” he said.

Rethinking Insomnia

Russell Foster, a professor of biological neuroscience at the University of Oxford, said Ekirch’s findings on biphasic sleep, without controversy, informed his work as a scientist. about sleep.

Sleep lab experiments have shown that when people are given the opportunity to sleep longer, he says, their sleep can become biphasic or even multiple phases, replicating what Ekirch found in historical records. However, Foster, who is also the director of Sir Jules Thorn Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at Oxford, doubted it was a sleeping habit that would happen to everyone.

No one should impose a phased sleep regimen on themselves, especially if it reduces total sleep time, he added.

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What’s clear, Foster says, is that disrupted sleep was seen as less of a problem in the past, and modern expectations about what constitutes a good night’s sleep — sleeping through eight hours — are not always the same. useful.

One key point, he said, is that waking up at night doesn’t mean the end of sleep. One example he cites is many people waking up at night with their doors locked during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“They’re going to have extreme anxiety and anxiety when they wake up in the middle of the night, because that’s not what they usually go through,” Foster said. who is also the author of “Lifetime: The new science of mechanical watches and how it can revolutionize your sleep and health, “to be published in May 2022. Most likely, what has happened is that people’s sleep time – the amount of time they spend sleeping – has expanded and is not limited by alarm clocks. .

“It’s the time when we actually sleep more,” he said.

Foster’s research shows that, if we wake up at night, sleep is likely to return, if sleep isn’t sacrificed by social media or other behavior that makes you more alert or triggers a stress response. straight. Like most sleep experts, he recommends getting out of bed if you’re frustrated with not being able to fall back asleep and engaging in a relaxing activity with the lights on low.

“Every person’s sleep is different,” he said. “One size doesn’t fit all. You shouldn’t worry about your sleep type.”


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