Your Ancestors Didn’t Sleep Like You

Maybe You Need to Sleep Like They Did

Having trouble falling asleep is not some new epidemic caused by our gadget addicted lifestyle. There were sleeping aid ads running on TV back in the early 1950s. And the first use of the word insomnia (meaning “want of sleep”) can be traced back to 1623—which is a few years before the first smartphone, tablet, or internet connection. It seems getting a good night’s sleep has been a struggle for centuries.

Studies have proven that everybody needs sleep—it is as essential as breathing and eating. But many of us find it to be a very elusive state of being. I am horrible at getting an adequate night’s sleep. First, I find it hard to fall asleep and then once I do fall asleep, the slightest noise wakes me right back up, forced to try and fall asleep all over again. I struggle to get seven to eight hours of sleep every night.

I know that lack of sleep affects judgment, coordination, and reaction times. In fact, sleep deprivation can affect you just as much as being drunk. Yet I continue to wage this nightly battle, trying to turn off my thoughts so I can sleep.

Recently I learned that before the 1800s, people did not sleep as we do today—each night, they slept twice. Which is something I have done in the past, just not on purpose. Roger Ekirch, professor of History at Virginia Tech, is credited with uncovering the once common practice of sleeping twice per night.

His research found that people didn’t always sleep in one eight-hour chunk. They used to sleep in two shorter periods, over a period of twelve hours. They began with a sleep of three to four hours, wakefulness of two to three hours, and then they would sleep again until morning. Amazingly this is what I had done many times in the past but always felt it was not the proper way to sleep. So instead of embracing it, I used to fight it, but not anymore. Now I sleep twice each night and you can too.

Ekirch’s book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past is replete with examples of this old way of sleeping and what people did during the waking period. Most stayed in their beds reading or using the time to pray. Religious manuals included special prayers to be said in the mid-sleep hours. Others might smoke or talk with co-sleepers. Some were more active and would leave to visit with neighbors. I often tell people we could get together at 3:00 a.m. since my schedule is always free then and I am usually awake. No one has taken me up on that offer yet, but maybe if more of us start to sleep twice someone will say yes to a 3:00 a.m. meeting. And next time you wake up at 3:00 a.m. and can’t sleep, just remember your great, great, great, great, great grandparents. They did the same thing, on purpose, every night.