Insomnia: Broken Sleep is Natural

For the last few blogs I have been looking at the issue of not getting a full night’s sleep. Well now it is confession time: I must admit, by virtually almost all medical models, I would be classified as a perennial insomniac. I can’t really remember when it started, but I do remember as a teenager I found it easier to get up at around 4:00am to deliver my papers on my paper route. After delivering papers for about 2 hours, I would get home, crawl back into bed and get about 1 more hour of sleep before it was time to get up for school. Maybe that just set up a pattern, but for most of my adult life it has been quite rare for me to sleep for more than 4 hours. This came in handy while I was in University, as I found I could do my best studying and writing in the wee hours of the morning.

Yes, this routine was quite normal for me; after doing some of my initial homework from, let’s say, 6–9PM, I would head off to the pub to do some socializing. I would climb into bed around midnight, getting up at 4AM to sort through my work for the day. I am also quite fond of the afternoon power nap. Ten to twenty minutes of power nap in the afternoon will refresh me as well as a full night of sleep. I would have to say this lifestyle pattern is probably the main reason I have published 12 books, and written and continually revised many course manuals and workbooks. I simply have had more hours in the day to do these things.

But the real question is, is this healthy or not? It is quite easy to find articles that say if you don’t get 7-8 hours of sleep a night, you will have all kinds of health issues, from immune problems, to cardiovascular problems, even cancer. The good news for me, none of these things have manifested. Why? I think the main reason is attitude. I never thought this sleep pattern was a problem, as it fit into my lifestyle quite nicely.

When I was doing my undergraduate studies, I of course looked into this and was quite satisfied with what I found. The main thing I uncovered was the Leonardo da Vinci sleep pattern. He was also known to only sleep in 4-hour blocks. He also was quite strict with taking a 15-minute break (sometimes a catnap) every 4 hours. I started implementing this sleep cycle whenever I had a major project to be done (like a deadline for a book) and found it worked quite well for me. It wasn’t long before I found a long list of people (like Churchill, Kennedy and Florence Nightingale) throughout history that implemented a system similar to this, increasing their productivity and even their quality of life.  Can this be a healthy way to live? After all, many medical authorities tell us if we don’t get at least 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep, we should take a sleeping pill, or we will not be healthy.

Broken sleep patterns are the most common form of insomnia. I have people coming into my clinic on a weekly basis worrying about it. These broken sleep patterns seem to be more natural than you might think.

In 2007 Dr Walter Brown, MD, started writing articles about this. He refers to a book written by professor of history Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. He uncovered the fact that before artificial illumination, people typically slept in 2 bouts, which was commonly called first sleep and second sleep. People would usually sleep for 4 hours and they would get up for a few hours, then go back to sleep for their second sleep.

This in-between time has been considered a great time for quiet contemplation that has been observed in many monasteries, convents and religious institutions. It was also a time when people would often do house work, visit with friends, or a time to have intimate relationships. Although diaries, court documents and literature of the time indicate this sleep pattern, for some reason it has fallen out of common knowledge to modern society.

It is interesting to note that this sleep pattern can still be found in many indigenous people around the world. It appears that artificial light on one side, idle entertainment like television and computer games on the other, together with the profit centers of pharmaceutical companies, have helped us feel that this is an abnormal sleep pattern.

In the early 1990s, Thomas A. Wehr, MD (Scientist Emeritus at the NIMH), did sleep research at the NIMH. His team took 8 healthy men and exposed them to natural and artificial light for 10 hours each day, and confined them to a dark room for 14 hours each night (durations of light and dark similar to the natural durations of day and night in winter) a sleep pattern similar to that of the preindustrial era developed. They quite naturally started a pattern of sleeping in 2 bouts of about 4 hours each, separated by 1 to 3 hours of quiet wakefulness. They usually woke from their first bout of sleep during a period of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when dreaming is most likely. The second bout of sleep was usually lighter than the first, with less stage-4 (deep) and more REM sleep. This showed that, when freed from the time constraints on night imposed by modern work schedules and artificial illumination, subjects reverted to the segmented sleep of earlier times. Accompanied by lots of dreaming.

We also find this interrupted or segmented sleep pattern in many animals that are active during the day—including chimpanzees, chipmunks, and giraffes— which sleep at night in 2 distinct bouts separated by several hours. In fact, Wehr points out, modern humans may be unique among animals in the extent to which their sleep is consolidated.

This all points to the possibility that segmented sleep is “normal”, and as such this information holds significant implications for both the understanding of sleep and the treatment of insomnia.

As a practitioner this misunderstanding about sleep can be quite frustrating; as mentioned above I have many patients who feel that something is abnormal with them because they can’t sleep for 7 – 8 hour in a row every night. They come in wanting a pill or some drops to help them with their ‘problem’. Often when I explain that the 2-bout sleep pattern can be quite natural and is not necessarily a health problem, many of them feel better and try to readjust their lifestyle to accommodate this different sleep pattern. Again, as soon as the attitude changes about what is normal, they don’t find as many problems in their life from it.

So if this is natural, are there any advantages to the 2-bout sleep pattern? I would say a big ‘Yes’! Besides possibly getting more tasks out of the way at night, what would these advantages be? If you look closer at the above patterns, you will notice that dreaming is a big part of this pattern. Both waking from the first bout, and more dreaming in the second bout, can help create more awareness of dreaming. Why am I interested in more dreaming?

The average person dreams 7–11 times a night whether they remember them or not. As I have stated in other blogs, dreaming can do many things, from ‘metabolizing’ emotional junk, to give us insights into different points of views and help answer questions we ‘need to sleep on’. My biggest interest here though is in the phenomenon of ‘Lucid Dreaming’.

I am suggesting some of the greatest insights a person can have about life, not to mention spiritual evolution, can come from lucid dreaming. Everyone can tap into lucid dreams as a wonderful roadmap to life, not to mention the best entertainment you will every get. Just think, you too can have better than HDTV movies, custom-made for you every night, totally for free. Not only are these dreams great, they can give us great insights into our daily lives.

So how do we increase our ability to lucid dream? If you have been following any of my past blogs, you know what I am going to say now: you will have to wait until my next blog for me to go into this. But I can leave a link to an interesting Youtube video to contemplate until then. I will also suggest that 2-bout sleep, dream journaling and cat-napping can all increase lucid dreaming.