At 3:30 a.m. on a Tuesday in January, I had just woken up to my alarm, loaded the dishwasher and journaled for a bit. Bored, l called my friend on the East Coast where she was getting ready for her 7 a.m. workout class.
“Are you ok?” she asked.
I told her I was great.
“Why are you calling me?” she said.
I explained I was on my fourth day of waking up in the middle of the night for an hour the way our ancestors used to. She was very confused.
“Why are you doing something that happened before the invention of the lightbulb?”
Sleeping is one of those things I never really thought about until the pandemic forced all of us to really think about a lot of things.
The only time I thought about sleep was when I didn’t get enough of it and a wave of lethargy ensued. Like many, eight hours is my magic number for an adequate amount of sleep. Less than that, and I feel off.
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But why do we humans strive to get eight hours of sleep a night? I never really questioned it when my parents held it as the golden standard. It’s something I took as a fact of life. But did humans always sleep that way?
Turns out, we didn’t. Our obsession with getting seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep is a fairly recent development.
“Our sleep today is less than two centuries old. It's a construct of modernity. It's artificial,” said Roger Ekirch, a historian and professor at Virginia Tech.
Ekirch made waves in 2005 when he published a book about nocturnal life in pre-Industrial western societies, “At Day’s Close.” His research revealed that up until the 19th century, humans didn’t sleep in one 8-hour chunk. Rather, they slept in two distinctive chunks.
“People in the western world, the vast majority, experienced what is referred to as a segmented or biphasic pattern of sleep,” Ekirch said. “People were remaining consciously awake during roughly an hour or so, an interval between these two stages of first and second sleep.”
In his research, Ekirch found references to “first” and “second sleep.” These segments of sleep were about three to four hours in length each. But people wouldn’t just hang out in bed.
"People did almost anything and everything,” Ekirch said. “Sex, particularly if you and your spouse were interested in conceiving a child. A French physician in the 17th century opined that for those peasant couples who wish to conceive children, there was no better time than after the 'first sleep.’”
Others would pray or meditate, while some would socialize with neighbors before returning home for their second sleep. So why don’t we sleep like that anymore?
“There are several reasons, but the two most important are cultural and technological,” Ekirch said. “The prevalence of artificial illumination first, which transformed cities but also had an influence upon our human body clocks.”
And then there was a cultural shift that came with the Industrial Revolution.
“Attitudes towards sleep became more negative than ever before. Lethargy, laziness, sleeping for 10 hours rather than seven or eight had always been a source of ridicule. But now in the 19th century, it became essential. If you wish to achieve, if you were ambitious, if you wish to, as one person wrote, ‘gain a step on the fellow who's still asleep,’ the easiest way to do that was to forego taking a second sleep.”
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I wanted to put this rhetoric to the test. Would it be possible to be a successful member of society today and sleep in a biphasic fashion? One way to find out: try it for myself.
I decided to try segmented sleep for a week in January. To be precise, it was two days after the attack on the U.S. Capitol. And if you know anyone who was a journalist during that week, you know we were all exhausted. I started my segmented sleep experiment on a Friday. In the event I failed miserably that first night and couldn’t function the next day, I at least wouldn’t have to work.
My plan was this: I would go to bed at 11 p.m. like I usually do. Get up at 3:30 a.m. for an hour, and then go back to bed at around 4:30 a.m. for a 4-hour second sleep.
That first night wasn’t bad. The alarm rang at 3:30 a.m., and I got up immediately. I felt groggy, but the excitement of starting segmented sleep overpowered any exhaustion I had pretty quickly.
I came up with two rules for this sleep journey: I wouldn’t use my phone and I wouldn’t do any work, as both those things mean staring at a screen. Exposure to that much light would make it difficult to fall asleep for my second sleep, I thought. That first night, I read 20 pages of a book. That quickly made me a little drowsy, so I switched over to more simulating activities—shaving and taking boxes to my apartment complex’s recycling dumpster.
That only covered me for about 30 minutes, which meant I still had another half hour before I could go back to bed. To pass the time, I journaled a bit and cuddled on the couch with my cat, Wiggy. By the end of that, my 4:30 a.m. second sleep had arrived and my heavy eyelids couldn’t be happier.
The first few days of segmented sleep were tough but not impossible. The novelty of it all helped me get up at 3:30 a.m. and coming up with new things to do during that hour interval was fun. I journaled, went on a long walk, loaded the dishwasher and cleaned the apartment.
During the workday, I didn’t see a noticeable change in my energy levels. I didn’t feel more tired than I usually do, but I also didn’t feel more well-rested. I think the fact that I was still averaging eight hours of sleep total was helping with that.
Before I finished out my week, though, I wanted to talk to someone who had tried segmented sleep to see if they had any tips. I found Peter Papathanasiou through a column he wrote for 'The Guardian.' Papathanasiou fell into biphasic sleeping by accident after his first son was born.
"When we were putting him to bed early, we'd be sitting in the room with him and have some relaxing music on,” Papathanasiou said. “And at the same time as my son was nodding off, I found myself nodding off. And then before you know it, you wake up and it's 11 o'clock or midnight.”
The main thing I wanted advice on was what to do in between my first and second sleep to feel a little bit more productive. Getting up to journal at 3:30 a.m. wasn't exactly the most motivating thing.
“I'm a writer, so I sometimes would use that period again as a parent with young kids to have some quiet time to sit and write,” Papathanasiou said. “Eating, putting washing on the line, cleaning up, maybe some TV. Domestic duties, basically.”
I then asked Papathanasiou how long it took him to fall into a pattern.
“About a month,” he said.
When I told him I was only going to do it for a week, he very politely chuckled and said he did not think that would be nearly enough time to get into a pattern.
After that conversation, I made the executive decision to continue my experiment for at least a month. Here’s where everything fell apart.
From day six to day 20, I maybe woke up in the middle of the night six of those days. And when I did wake up, I would snooze the alarm for 45 minutes and wake up closer to 4:30 a.m.
Around this time, former President Donald Trump was impeached, which meant my work days got more unpredictable and more taxing (part of my job is editing breaking news videos). That day was brutal. I never use eye drops but that day I had to because my eyes felt so dry. I had a headache most of that day. I don’t want to pin all of that on segmented sleep, however. In total, I didn’t sleep much that week (only about six hours per night), so I think some of it had to do with the stress caused by breaking news in Washington.
Getting up in the middle of the night to go on walks or clean the apartment seemed like a waste of valuable sleeping time during a hectic work week. Hitting snooze seemed like a smarter choice. And my body seemed to thank me when I would forego the segmented sleep. I would feel noticeably more recharged the next morning and in a better mood. Still, I wanted to get better at waking up in the middle of the night. But I was lost as to how.
And then it hit me. The times it’s easier to wake up in the middle of the night is when I have to use the bathroom. So for the next few days, I decided I would chug a bunch of water before bed. It worked.
From days 20 to 30, things got better. I woke up at 3:30 a.m. seven of those days and went on night walks almost all of those days. I didn’t feel particularly energized after that second sleep, but I didn’t feel tired, either.
I’m glad I tried segmented sleep, but I probably will never try it again. It’s not complimentary to my lifestyle and I have yet to find something awfully important to do at 3:30 a.m., short of cuddling with my cat. I think I’ll wait until fatherhood to put myself through that again.
But if you are going to try segmented sleep, I have these five suggestions:
- If you do choose to try it, consult your doctor beforehand
- Drink lots of water before bed
- Try to start your first sleep at the same time every night
- Really, don't