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The Great Myth of the 8 Hour Sleep!

For a long time now sleep experts, occupational therapists and psychologists have warned about the importance of getting at least six hours sleep per night and the consequences that can come with not achieving this. It can therefore perhaps comes as a bit of a shock that the block eight hour period of sleep in which we have become accustomed to is actually a relatively new concept.

It is true that sleep is an essential part of health. It helps us to learn new things more easily, become less stressed, have less chance of developing serious health conditions and is responsible for us leading healthier and better quality lives. Despite these facts, do you ever wake up in the night or have continually broken sleep? Well you’re not alone and the remedy may simply be a case of mixing up your sleeping pattern.

The idea of two 3 – 4 hour sleep patterns per night was first discovered by a professor of History at Virginia Tech, Roger Ekirch. His research found that a single eight hour sleeping block wasn’t always necessary. Instead he found that over an eleven hour period the pattern consisted of: sleep of four hours, wakefulness of two or three hours and then a further sleep of around four hours.

The two sleeps per night is littered throughout history in court documents, books and personal papers. But perhaps what is more surpassing than anything is just how common this concept was. It was the standard and accepted way of sleeping in society. But what exactly would people do during this three hour twilight period when awake?

Many of the people who awoke at this time would do everyday activities. Most would stay in their beds and read or talk with their partners. Others often used this time to pray. Many more would smoke and some even went around to see neighbours before returning for their second bout of slumber.

As we all know, the idea of having two sleeps during one night vanished. This came about because of the arrival of street lighting and later the introduction of electric indoor lighting. With the advent of street lighting, twilight hours stopped being the home to criminals and became a time for socialising and work. Eventually the idea of two sleeping periods in one night was seen as a waste of time.

Therefore, throughout most of evolution we have been accustomed to two four hour sleeping periods. We have slept in a way that is natural to us and it has evolved out of the dark-night lifecycle. Waking up during the night is simply part of a normal human physiology and the process of now sleeping in consolidated eight hour blocks could actual be harmful.

There are a few reasons for this. The first is that when people wake up during the night, they often feel anxious that they cannot get back to sleep and achieve the essential rest that they need. Russell Foster, a professor of circadian neuroscience at Oxford goes onto say that: “Many people wake up at night and panic. I tell them that what they are experiencing is a throwback to the bi-modal sleeping pattern”.

The benefits of having these two sleep periods during the night is that most of us find it easier to enter a deeper sleep, particularly in the second stage. We also enter REM (rapid eye movement) more quickly and between the sleeping periods we are often more productive. Additionally, we are also able to remember our dreams more easily which is said to give us a gateway to our sub-conscious selves.

The reason for shifting to a block eight hour sleeping period is thought to be a combination of factors. Living in a twenty-four hour society, where we have to try and fit everything into our lifestyles not only compromises the amount of sleep we get but the quality too. Despite the massive health benefits that come with adopting a different sleep pattern, many people look beyond this simply because more can be done if we sleep in a block pattern.

Additionally, the environment in which we live; full of stimuli and light are often thought to cause a hysteria about sleep. All too often people are quick to turn to sleeping tablets when people could fight the temptation and simply don’t fight it. If your body really is that tired, you’ll fall asleep. If, like many of us, you’re unable to achieve the two sleeping periods during one night, then remember the benefits that napping can bring.

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