High school is when many of us experience our first fraught and painful relationships. That was true for Lynne Stuart Parramore too, but the object of her longing and self-doubt wasn't a cute boy in algebra class, she relates in a fascinating article on Salon, it was sleep.

"Morning became a special form of hell. Long school commutes meant rising in 6 a.m. darkness," she relates. "High school trigonometry commenced at 7:50 a.m. I flunked."

Parramore had such trouble getting her recommended eight hours of sleep and waking in the morning that she even opted for grad school rather than face the early wakeup that the nine-to-five grind would necessitate. Unwanted wakefulness during the night plagued her deep into her adult years. White noise, lavender oil, and various other home remedies couldn't get her to sleep through the night. Until something saved her.

Was it a pill, potion, or some practice of what's known as good "sleep hygiene"? Hardly. It was a book.

The Second Sleep

In the in-depth post--which is well worth a read in full if you recognize yourself in Parramore's struggle--she talks about a breakthrough she made after some late night, insomnia-induced Web searching. The problem, she discovered, wasn't her unshakeable inability to sleep eight hours in one go, it was her expectation that such a thing was a healthy and expected part of human physiology.

"Turns out that psychiatrist Thomas Wehr ran an experiment back in the '90s in which people were thrust into darkness for 14 hours every day for a month. When their sleep regulated, a strange pattern emerged. They slept first for four hours, then woke for one or two hours before drifting off again into a second four-hour sleep," she explains.

Wehr was far from the only one who documented this more natural pattern of sleep. In 2001, historian A. Roger Ekirch "published a groundbreaking paper based on 16 years of research, which revealed something quite amazing: humans did not evolve to sleep through the night in one solid chunk. Until very recently, they slept in two stages."

Ekirch elaborated on these two stages, known as "first sleep" and "second sleep," in his book At Day's Close: Night in Times Past, rounding up more than 500 examples of this sleep pattern from sources ranging from diaries and anthropological studies to classics of literature. They all agreed, Parramore reports: "Like an astrolabe pointing to some forgotten star, these accounts referenced a first sleep that began two hours after dusk, followed by waking period of one or two hours and then a second sleep." The nighttime waking period was used for reading, prayer, a chat with housemates or neighbors, or sex.

So What?

All of which is completely fascinating, as is Parramore's tracing of how we gradually lost our knowledge of this natural pattern, as streetlights became the norm. But besides being a fun bit of cocktail party trivia, is this knowledge actually useful? Parramore insists it is.

"We have been told over and over that the eight-hour sleep is ideal. But in many cases, our bodies have been telling us something else. Since our collective memory has been erased, anxiety about nighttime wakefulness has kept us up even longer, and our eight-hour sleep mandate may have made us more prone to stress. The long period of relaxation we used to get after a hard day's work may have been better for our peace of mind than all the yoga in Manhattan," she writes.

In essence, the problem with your nighttime wakefulness may be that you're worrying about it, rather than letting yourself go more with your body's natural rhythm (as a business owner, you may have a little leeway in this, after all...though if you're the parent of school-age children you also could be forced into the same early morning hell Parramore remembers from high school).

Learning to stop stressing around sleep worked for Parramore. "Instead of heading to bed with anxiety, I've tried to dive in like a voluptuary, pushing away my guilt about the list of things I could be doing and letting myself become beautifully suspended between worlds," she says. She has come to "realize that giving sleep and rest the center stage in our lives may be as fundamental to our well-being as the way we eat and the medicines that cure us."

So if you can, give earlier bedtimes and less anxiety about broken sleep a try. If the tyranny of the school bus (or early shift) makes that a distant dream, then keep it in mind should your schedule ever change. In the meantime, the Harvard Business Review has a good rundown of all the best bedtime tips and tricks that can help you override nature (and the constant jangling of your inboxes) to get the best conventional night's sleep possible.

Published on: Dec 4, 2014
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