Like many of the patients I see, I sometimes struggle to get a good night’s sleep. One valuable lesson from my experience with insomnia is that worrying about sleep makes it even more difficult to do. When we become anxious, our body’s fight or flight system becomes activated. Our adrenal glands secrete norepinephrine, epinephrine, and cortisol in preparation for taking on a threat to our survival. All of this is not a recipe for sound slumber.
So if I happen to wake up in the middle of the night, I try to tell myself in a Stuart Smiley kind of voice, “It’s gonna be OK. It’s not the end of the world if I don’t get all of the sleep I want tonight.” I also tell myself that it’s perfectly normal to wake up during the night—because it is.
In fact, as David Randall reports in his book Dreamland, scholars from two different fields of study have discovered that sleep hasn’t always been the long block we consider it today. The first of these scholars is Virginia Tech history professor Roger Ekirch. Reading documents and literature from prior days, Ekirch
kept noticing strange references to sleep. In the Canterbury Tales, for instance, one of the characters in “The Squire’s Tale” wakes up in the early morning following her ‘first sleep’ and then goes back to bed. A fifteenth-century medical book, meanwhile, advised readers advised readers to spend the ‘first sleep’ on the right side and after that to lie on their left. And a scholar in England wrote that the time between the ‘first sleep’ and the ‘second sleep’ was the best time for serious study.
Ekirch rediscovered a fact of life that was once as common as eating breakfast. Every night, people fell asleep not long after the sun went down and stayed that way until some time after midnight. This was the first sleep that kept popping up in the old tales. Once a person woke up, he or she would stay that way for an hour or so before going back to sleep until morning–the so-called second sleep. The time between the two bouts of sleep was a natural and expected part of the night and, depending on your needs, was spent praying, reading, contemplating your dream, urinating, or having sex.
While it was clear to Ekirch that modern people sleep quite differently than our ancestors, “saying that the whole of the industrialized world sleeps unnaturally was a big leap.” It was thus fortuitous that at the same time was Ekirch was making his discovery, a neuroscientist stumbled upon the same phenomenon. At the National Institute of Mental Health, the psychiatrist Thomas Wehr wondered if “the ubiquitous artificial light we see every day could have some unknown effect on our sleep habits. On a whim, he deprived subjects of artificial light for up to fourteen hours a day in hopes of re-creating the lighting conditions common to early humans.” Wehr noticed that the people he studied “began to stir a little after midnight, lie awake in bed for an hour of so, and then fall back to sleep again. It was the same sort of segmented sleep that Ekirch found in the historical records. . . The experiment revealed the innate wiring in the brain, unearthed only after the body was sheltered from modern life.”
Wehr soon decided to investigate further. Once again, he blocked subjects from exposure to artificial light. This time, however, he drew some of their blood during the night. The results showed that the hour humans once spent awake in the middle of the night was probably the most relaxing block of time in their lives. Chemically, the body was in a state equivalent to what you might feel after spending a day at a spa. During the time between the two sleeps, the subjects’ brains pumped out higher levels of prolactin, a hormone that helps reduce stress. . . The subjects in Wehr’s study described the time between the two halves of sleep as close to a period of meditation.
Learning these fascinating facts about the history and biology of sleep makes me wonder if insomnia is largely an environmentally-produced health condition. Just as asbestos produces mesothelioma and tobacco smoke accounts for most cases of lung cancer and emphysema, much of our modern plague of difficulty sleeping can be laid at the feet of Thomas Edison’s world-changing invention.