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the myth of the 8-hour sleep

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We often worry about lying awake in the middle of the night - but it could be good for you. A growing body of evidence from both science and history suggests that the eight-hour sleep may be unnatural.

In the early 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr conducted an experiment in which a group of people were plunged into darkness for 14 hours every day for a month.

It took some time for their sleep to regulate but by the fourth week the subjects had settled into a very distinct sleeping pattern. They slept first for four hours, then woke for one or two hours before falling into a second four-hour sleep.

Though sleep scientists were impressed by the study, among the general public the idea that we must sleep for eight consecutive hours persists.

In 2001, historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech published a seminal paper, drawn from 16 years of research, revealing a wealth of historical evidence that humans used to sleep in two distinct chunks.

His book At Day's Close: Night in Times Past, published four years later, unearths more than 500 references to a segmented sleeping pattern - in diaries, court records, medical books and literature, from Homer's Odyssey to an anthropological account of modern tribes in Nigeria.

Much like the experience of Wehr's subjects, these references describe a first sleep which began about two hours after dusk, followed by waking period of one or two hours and then a second sleep.

"It's not just the number of references - it is the way they refer to it, as if it was common knowledge," Ekirch says.

During this waking period people were quite active. They often got up, went to the toilet or smoked tobacco and some even visited neighbours. Most people stayed in bed, read, wrote and often prayed. Countless prayer manuals from the late 15th Century offered special prayers for the hours in between sleeps.

And these hours weren't entirely solitary - people often chatted to bed-fellows or had sex.

A doctor's manual from 16th Century France even advised couples that the best time to conceive was not at the end of a long day's labour but "after the first sleep", when "they have more enjoyment" and "do it better".

Ekirch found that references to the first and second sleep started to disappear during the late 17th Century. This started among the urban upper classes in northern Europe and over the course of the next 200 years filtered down to the rest of Western society.

By the 1920s the idea of a first and second sleep had receded entirely from our social consciousness.

He attributes the initial shift to improvements in street lighting, domestic lighting and a surge in coffee houses - which were sometimes open all night. As the night became a place for legitimate activity and as that activity increased, the length of time people could dedicate to rest dwindled.

In his new book, Evening's Empire, historian Craig Koslofsky puts forward an account of how this happened.

"Associations with night before the 17th Century were not good," he says. The night was a place populated by people of disrepute - criminals, prostitutes and drunks.

"Even the wealthy, who could afford candlelight, had better things to spend their money on. There was no prestige or social value associated with staying up all night."

That changed in the wake of the Reformation and the counter-Reformation. Protestants and Catholics became accustomed to holding secret services at night, during periods of persecution. If earlier the night had belonged to reprobates, now respectable people became accustomed to exploiting the hours of darkness.

This trend migrated to the social sphere too, but only for those who could afford to live by candlelight. With the advent of street lighting, however, socialising at night began to filter down through the classes.

In 1667, Paris became the first city in the world to light its streets, using wax candles in glass lamps. It was followed by Lille in the same year and Amsterdam two years later, where a much more efficient oil-powered lamp was developed.

London didn't join their ranks until 1684 but by the end of the century, more than 50 of Europe's major towns and cities were lit at night.

Night became fashionable and spending hours lying in bed was considered a waste of time.

"People were becoming increasingly time-conscious and sensitive to efficiency, certainly before the 19th Century," says Roger Ekirch. "But the industrial revolution intensified that attitude by leaps and bounds."

Strong evidence of this shifting attitude is contained in a medical journal from 1829 which urged parents to force their children out of a pattern of first and second sleep.

"If no disease or accident there intervene, they will need no further repose than that obtained in their first sleep, which custom will have caused to terminate by itself just at the usual hour.

"And then, if they turn upon their ear to take a second nap, they will be taught to look upon it as an intemperance not at all redounding to their credit."

Today, most people seem to have adapted quite well to the eight-hour sleep, but Ekirch believes many sleeping problems may have roots in the human body's natural preference for segmented sleep as well as the ubiquity of artificial light.

This could be the root of a condition called sleep maintenance insomnia, where people wake during the night and have trouble getting back to sleep, he suggests.

The condition first appears in literature at the end of the 19th Century, at the same time as accounts of segmented sleep disappear.

"For most of evolution we slept a certain way," says sleep psychologist Gregg Jacobs. "Waking up during the night is part of normal human physiology."

The idea that we must sleep in a consolidated block could be damaging, he says, if it makes people who wake up at night anxious, as this anxiety can itself prohibit sleeps and is likely to seep into waking life too.

Russell Foster, a professor of circadian [body clock] neuroscience at Oxford, shares this point of view.

"Many people wake up at night and panic," he says. "I tell them that what they are experiencing is a throwback to the bi-modal sleep pattern."

But the majority of doctors still fail to acknowledge that a consolidated eight-hour sleep may be unnatural.

"Over 30% of the medical problems that doctors are faced with stem directly or indirectly from sleep. But sleep has been ignored in medical training and there are very few centres where sleep is studied," he says.

Jacobs suggests that the waking period between sleeps, when people were forced into periods of rest and relaxation, could have played an important part in the human capacity to regulate stress naturally.

In many historic accounts, Ekirch found that people used the time to meditate on their dreams.

"Today we spend less time doing those things," says Dr Jacobs. "It's not a coincidence that, in modern life, the number of people who report anxiety, stress, depression, alcoholism and drug abuse has gone up."

So the next time you wake up in the middle of the night, think of your pre-industrial ancestors and relax. Lying awake could be good for you.

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...A doctor's manual from 16th Century France even advised couples that the best time to conceive have teh sechs was not at the end of a long day's labour but "after the first sleep", when "they have more enjoyment" and "do it better"...

:thumbup:

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Isn't this mostly because people went to sleep when the sun went down prior to lighting? Not sure most people are going to want to cut their day a couple of hours short to do stuff in the middle of the night.

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If I spend 8 consecutive hours sleeping or lying in bed I can't get out. Literally. Can't. Get. Out. :(

It takes a few minutes. Geting old(er) is teh suck.

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- Less than 5-6 hours I feel like crap. I can do this once every couple weeks, but I gotta make it up the next night with a 8+ hour night.

- 7-9 hours is probably my sweet spot. I'm usually an 8.5 hour, 10:30 PM - 7 AM sleeper.

- 10+ hours I feel incredible, but it's not very practical.

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Actually the average sleep cycle is four hours--so when people recommend 8 hours they are suggesting that most folks function best with two full cycles of sleep. I myself have been on a four hour cycle as long as I can remember, and generally get up for an hour or so before returning to bed if there's time. (frequently work schedules intrude!) I have also found that a single cycle of sleep is much easier to awake from than 6 hours, say, because you are waking up at the REM stage when you're not so deeply down.

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10 - 6 like clock work Sunday through Thursday

Agreed with LAJS if I get less than 5 - 6 hours I am sorta off that day and need to catchup quickly

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This makes sense. It's been years since I've slept more than 4 hours straight at a time. its usually 4 hours down, 2 hours up, and then 2 hours back down before getting up for work. I don't actually feel "tired" until I get up that 2nd time because I guess I am interrupting that 2nd cycle.

I read somewhere the other day that NASA believes the optimum nap time is 27 minutes. Thoughts on this?

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Getting too much sleep is just as bad for me as to little. In both cases I feel out of it and no amount of caffeine can get me going. Optimal is 6 or 7 hours. This really varies from person-to-person. I see no reason to adjust my sleep cycle based on what other people are doing.

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What did they used to watch on TV during their waking period? I can't find anything worth a crap at 2AM on DirecTV.

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Getting too much sleep is just as bad for me as to little. In both cases I feel out of it and no amount of caffeine can get me going. Optimal is 6 or 7 hours. This really varies from person-to-person. I see no reason to adjust my sleep cycle based on what other people are doing.

:goodposting:I used to love crashing for 10-12 hours sometimes, but I can't do that anymore without waking up with a headache and feeling like crap. :(

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This makes sense. It's been years since I've slept more than 4 hours straight at a time. its usually 4 hours down, 2 hours up, and then 2 hours back down before getting up for work. I don't actually feel "tired" until I get up that 2nd time because I guess I am interrupting that 2nd cycle.

I read somewhere the other day that NASA believes the optimum nap time is 27 minutes. Thoughts on this?

Anything more than that and I'm in a drunken stupor...

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10 - 6 like clock work Sunday through ThursdayAgreed with LAJS if I get less than 5 - 6 hours I am sorta off that day and need to catchup quickly

I used to think like this...then we ended up with two kids under 3. A typical night's sleep for me now is 5-6 hours, often less, and normally interrupted. And I feel like my body has adjusted pretty well to that.

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Getting too much sleep is just as bad for me as to little. In both cases I feel out of it and no amount of caffeine can get me going. Optimal is 6 or 7 hours. This really varies from person-to-person. I see no reason to adjust my sleep cycle based on what other people are doing.

:goodposting:I used to love crashing for 10-12 hours sometimes, but I can't do that anymore without waking up with a headache and feeling like crap. :(
Exactly. Headache, every time.

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...A doctor's manual from 16th Century France even advised couples that the best time to conceive have teh sechs was not at the end of a long day's labour but "after the first sleep", when "they have more enjoyment" and "do it better"...

:thumbup:
I might be too anxious to get through first sleep if I thought sex was on the menu afterward.

How does this figure in with a power-nap?

My ideal sleep pattern appears to be about 7 hours straight through then a 45 minute nap at exactly the midpoint of the day. Sixteen or 17 hours awake at a stretch is just too much. I don't know how you guys do it.

Interesting subject, zed. Thanks.

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The contention that 30% of all health problems are sleep related seems awfully high. That kind of claim is one that usually raises red flags in my mind on someone's claims unless they've provided some pretty good statistical evidence to back it up.

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6 Hours seems to be perfect for me. I usually wake up at about 5 AM to go to the bathroom (getting old). At this time I am feeling great and very awake. I usually go back to sleep for another hour then, feel like crap when I wake up.

They need to make 30 minute snooze buttons. That 9 minute snooze is bad for you.

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I read somewhere the other day that NASA believes the optimum nap time is 27 minutes. Thoughts on this?

I agree with it. My ideal nap is 30 minutes on the alarm. I figure a couple of minutes to fall asleep, and I'm right there :thumbup:

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I read somewhere the other day that NASA believes the optimum nap time is 27 minutes. Thoughts on this?

I agree with it. My ideal nap is 30 minutes on the alarm. I figure a couple of minutes to fall asleep, and I'm right there :thumbup:
Maybe you should knock that down to 0 for a few days and fix that dishwasher, eh?

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I read somewhere the other day that NASA believes the optimum nap time is 27 minutes. Thoughts on this?

I agree with it. My ideal nap is 30 minutes on the alarm. I figure a couple of minutes to fall asleep, and I'm right there :thumbup:
Maybe you should knock that down to 0 for a few days and fix that dishwasher, eh?
:lmao:The naps help me work up to that!

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6 Hours seems to be perfect for me. I usually wake up at about 5 AM to go to the bathroom (getting old). At this time I am feeling great and very awake. I usually go back to sleep for another hour then, feel like crap when I wake up.They need to make 30 minute snooze buttons. That 9 minute snooze is bad for you.

Hmm my alarm has a 10 minute snooze and if I tap it 3 times it goes off again 30 minutes later.Get a better alarm clock?

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Bah, sleep sucks. Waste of time. If there were a pill or something I could do to give me the benefit of 8hrs of sleep while only actually sleeping 2 or 3 I'd be all over it.

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I don't sleep at all because i'm always having sechs. Because married men with two kids are always getting sechs whenever they want it - so we don't need to sleep.

Edited by MaxThreshold

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This makes sense. It's been years since I've slept more than 4 hours straight at a time. its usually 4 hours down, 2 hours up, and then 2 hours back down before getting up for work. I don't actually feel "tired" until I get up that 2nd time because I guess I am interrupting that 2nd cycle.I read somewhere the other day that NASA believes the optimum nap time is 27 minutes. Thoughts on this?

I always thought I was a freak. I pretty routinely get up for an hour to an hour and a half at night. Pron is about the best I can do because my wife would go ninja on me if I tried in the middle of the night.

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Never get to take naps anymore. I remember waking from a nap a few times in the past completely disoriented and somewhat panicked. It took a good 20 to 30 minutes to get my bearings. Not sure if it was the stage of sleep I woke from or what but I was completely useless.

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I read somewhere the other day that NASA believes the optimum nap time is 27 minutes. Thoughts on this?

I agree with it. My ideal nap is 30 minutes on the alarm. I figure a couple of minutes to fall asleep, and I'm right there :thumbup:
IIRC it because it takes on average 30-40 minutes to enter the deep stages of sleep (stage 3 and 4). That's why you get that groggy, knocked out feeling if you nap more than 30 (or whenever your specific body enters stage 3 sleep). I think a normal cycle is about 90 minutes so it should be either a quick power nap or a full cycle. I do best with staying under 30 min. Edited by Bronx Bomber

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I don't sleep at all because i'm always having sechs. Because married men with two kids are always getting sechs whenever they want it - so we don't need to sleep.

:lmao: :lmao: :lmao:

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I don't sleep at all because i'm always having sechs. Because married men with two kids are always getting sechs whenever they want it - so we don't need to sleep.

:lmao: :lmao: :lmao:

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This makes sense. It's been years since I've slept more than 4 hours straight at a time. its usually 4 hours down, 2 hours up, and then 2 hours back down before getting up for work. I don't actually feel "tired" until I get up that 2nd time because I guess I am interrupting that 2nd cycle.I read somewhere the other day that NASA believes the optimum nap time is 27 minutes. Thoughts on this?

I always thought I was a freak. I pretty routinely get up for an hour to an hour and a half at night.
I used to do this quite frequently as well. Usually what would happen is I would fall asleep on the couch, and then wake up around 4 hours later. I would then do something for an hour or 2 and go back to bed.

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This explains why I wake up only to find out it's only 2:00am

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6 Hours seems to be perfect for me. I usually wake up at about 5 AM to go to the bathroom (getting old). At this time I am feeling great and very awake. I usually go back to sleep for another hour then, feel like crap when I wake up.They need to make 30 minute snooze buttons. That 9 minute snooze is bad for you.

Hmm my alarm has a 10 minute snooze and if I tap it 3 times it goes off again 30 minutes later.Get a better alarm clock?
Hmmmm. I did not know that option was available. I know my 1979 alarm clock does not have that feature.

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For me, less than 6 hours or more than 10 is not good.

It also matters when you go to bed. If I get 7 hours falling asleep at 10pm, I feel way better than getting 7 hours falling asleep at 2am.

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5-6 hours of sleep is about all I ever get, even if I can sleep in as late as I want. I believe there was a study a few years back that correlated 6-7 hours of sleep a night to a longer lifespan. There was a negative correlation for every hour past 7.

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Bah, sleep sucks. Waste of time. If there were a pill or something I could do to give me the benefit of 8hrs of sleep while only actually sleeping 2 or 3 I'd be all over it.

there's something really popular that will give you the benefit of 2 nights rest, while sleeping zero hours, but you might be on it for a while.

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