Just when you need it most, it becomes more difficult to acquire. I am referring to sleep. When I was a kid I could lay my head on a pillow, fall asleep in short order and sleep soundly through the entire night.
At 65 that isn’t the case. These days I generally turn on the TV set the volume low for a little “white noise” lullaby. If it’s been a decent day, I fall sleep relatively fast. However, there’s no more of that sleeping soundly all night stuff. Depending upon the night, I may fall asleep again quickly after my 2 a.m. trip to… well, you know. Then again, I may lay there for up to an hour. If the latter is the case, I turn on TV again for some background noise and that sometimes helps lull me back to sleep. Sure isn’t much to watch on antenna TV a 2 a.m.
Then around 5 a.m. it’s wake up time, regardless if I have had enough sleep or not. If I’m really tired, I might doze for a while but seldom get back to deep slumber. Of course, if it’s a Saturday, a holiday or a vacation day it’s even more difficult to get back to sleep.
Recently I read an article that says that sleeping through the night (or at least our attempts at it) is a relatively new phenomenon. Roger Ekirch, professor of history at Virginia Tech, says his research shows that years ago people slept twice during the night.
Before the 1800s, Ekrich writes, most people went to bed and slept for four or five hours and then were awake for a few hours. After that they slept again until morning. In his research Ekrich examined the writings of a 15th century English doctor who stated that the best time for study and contemplation was between “first sleep” and “second sleep.” So what did those folks do between the first sleep and the second?
Ekirch’s research revealed that most stayed in their beds. Some would read, others would pray. Religious manuals of that day included special prayers to be said during the mid-sleep hours.
Others, however, would enjoy a smoke or visit with co-sleepers. And, of course, some had sex. (A word to young people: your generation did not invent sex.) A doctor from the 16th century reported that working class people conceived more children because they typically had sex after their first sleep. Professor Ekirch wrote that the practice of two sleep eventually died out because, he surmised, of the advent of street lighting and eventually indoor electric lighting. By the beginning of the 20th century the practice of two sleeps had died.
Was the two sleep practice better for humans? About 20 years ago a psychiatrist at the National Institutes of Mental Health conducted a study on the matter. Fifteen men spent four weeks with their daylight restricted. They stayed up for ten hours per day rather than the customary 16. The other 14 hours were spent in a closed, dark room where they would rest or sleep as much as possible.
The psychiatrist observed that at first the study participants slept long stretches of time, probably making up for the sleep deficit from which most modern Americans suffer. A strange thing happened when they had caught up on their sleep. They began to have two sleeps.
Unlike the middle of the night tossing and turning we often experience, the middle hours of the night between the two sleeps found the participants enjoying an unusual calmness. The participants used the time to relax and didn’t stress about getting back to sleep.
There seems to be no evidence that the two sleep custom is any better for us than a good relaxing eight hours of sleep in one shot. Of course, the struggle for most of us is to get a relaxing eight hours of sleep… period.
For the foreseeable future, I suspect, I will be ruled by the one sleep custom. And that’s okay; it’s all I have ever known.
Still, I long for the days when a minute or two after my head hitting the pillow I was in dreamland for a solid eight hours… or more.