What is segmented sleep and can it help me?

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AAbout a year into the pandemic, Marcela Rafea started waking up regularly at 3 a.m., her mind racing.

She would slip out of bed and tiptoe into the living room, where she would meditate, try a few yoga poses, and open the window to hear the leaves rustle, the cars go by, and the dogs bark.

Then, at 6 a.m., she would get back into bed and go back to sleep until her youngest child woke her up for the day an hour later.

“I needed that nighttime awakening to catch up on the time I didn’t have for myself,” says Rafea, a 50-year-old photographer and mother of three who lives in Oak Park, Illinois.

Unbeknownst to Rafea, she had naturally reverted to a sleep cycle that would have been standard in some late medieval to early 19th century cultures.

During this period, people often fell asleep at sunset and woke up three to four hours later. They socialized, read books, ate small meals and tried to conceive children for the next hour or two before returning for a second sleep for another three to four hours. It wasn’t until artificial light was introduced that people started forcing themselves to sleep through the night, according to A Roger Ekirch, a history professor at Virginia Tech and author of The great transformation of sleep.

Now that many people are setting their own schedules, working from home and focusing more on self-care, there has been a return for some to the idea of ​​a segmented sleep cycle – sometimes voluntary, but given the levels of stress from the past. two years, sometimes not.

So are we just reverting to our long-forgotten natural sleep cycle? And could this be the cure for those who are notorious for middle-of-the-night insomniacs?



All the anxiety I had about not being able to sleep started to subside and I started to feel like what little sleep I got at night was okay as long as I was using my waking time more productively.

Ekirch, who has studied segmented sleep for the past 35 years, says there are more than 2,000 references to it from literary sources: everything from letters and diaries to court records, diaries , plays, novels and poetry, and from Homer to Chaucer to Dickens. .

“The phenomenon had different names in different places: first and second sleep, first nap and dead sleep, evening sleep and morning sleep,” says Benjamin Reiss, professor of English at Emory University and author of Wild Nights: How taming sleep created our restless world. He adds that rather than being a choice at the time, it was simply something that people did, as it fit well with agricultural and artisanal work patterns.

There were also negative reasons for segmented sleep.

“Sleeping surfaces – often a sack full of grass, or if you’re lucky, wool or horsehair – made it harder than it is today to sleep for a long time uninterrupted,” says Reiss. And there were, of course, health issues. For example, “without modern dentistry, a toothache might start beating in the middle of the night.”

Everything changed with the Industrial Revolution, which emphasized profit and productivity; the belief was that people who confined their sleep to a single interval gained an advantage. The increasing prevalence of artificial light has allowed for later bedtimes, resulting in sleep compression.

Fast forward a few hundred years, and we’ve gotten used to compressed sleep. Well, some of us have.

Thirty percent of people report waking up at least three nights a week, according to a 2010 study published in the Psychosomatic Research Journal, and 25% of adults suffer from insomnia each year, according to a recent study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. For some people, the pandemic has spurred more flexible schedules, leading to experiments with the old-fashioned sleep method.

Are we just reverting to our long-forgotten natural sleep cycle?

(Getty/iStock)

Such is the case with Mark Hadley, a 52-year-old chief financial officer in North Bend, Oregon. In the past 20 years, Hadley says he can’t remember a time when he was completely asleep through the night.

“I always woke up in the middle of the night and lay there,” he says. “Physically, I wanted to get up, but I needed more sleep.”

Hadley had no choice. He had heard of segmented sleep, but didn’t have time to try it until his work was mostly done remotely during the pandemic.

So in August 2021, Hadley began segmental sleep, going to bed at 10 p.m. and waking up naturally at 2 a.m. He gets up one and a half to two o’clock to read and pray. Then he goes back to bed around 3:30 or 4 a.m., and sleeps until his wife wakes him up at 6:30 or 7 a.m.

“That’s what my body was trying to do, even when I had never heard of it,” Hadley says. “I’ve finally gotten to a place where I have a healthy sleep pattern.”

However, doctors are conflicted over the health of segmented sleep.

“We don’t really know the long-term impacts of segmented sleep because we don’t really have a lot of data on it,” says Matthew Ebben, associate professor of psychology in clinical neurology at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian.



When practicing segmented sleep, insomniacs don’t have to worry about waking up in the middle of the night, because that’s how segmented sleep works.

This can make some people more tired and sleepy throughout the day, says Nicole Avena, health psychologist and assistant professor of neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Additionally, says Avena, segmented sleep forces individuals to go to bed earlier, which may not work with certain schedules.

For 33-year-old Danielle Hughes, segmented sleep has proven to be a cure for insomnia. Hughes, who lives in Dublin, spent an entire year consulting doctors to try and find a solution to his middle-of-the-night awakenings. She eventually Googled her problem and came across the idea of ​​segmented sleep.

“It was like a light bulb moment for me,” Hughes says. “Any anxiety I had about not being able to sleep started to subside, and I started to feel like what little sleep I got at night was okay as long as I used my waking time more productively.”

Since discovering segmented sleep, Hughes has been more open to the concept, sleeping from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. and again from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.

For insomnia-related anxiety, segmented sleep is often an ideal solution, says Alex Savy, sleep science coach and founder of SleepingOcean, a sleep product review site in Toronto.

“When practicing segmented sleep, insomniacs don’t have to worry about waking up in the middle of the night, because that’s how segmented sleep works,” says Savy. “Therefore, they can adjust the schedule to their insomnia and reduce the stress associated with it.”

But reverting to medieval sleep patterns isn’t for everyone, Avena says, suggesting that segmented sleep should only be tried by those who already have sleep issues.

“I think that while it may promote better sleep for these people, it probably has more consequences than benefits for those who don’t have trouble sleeping,” she says.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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