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Your Great-Great Grandparents Didn’t Sleep Like You

Why our ancestors didn’t sleep like us. How you can sleep better, especially if you live off the grid.

Perhaps the most common situation when we experience serious disruption in our sleep patterns is when flying large distances. The popular jet lag is punishing the sleep cycle we are accustomed to. But even the style of sleep we have come to know as normal, after a day bombarded with the use of technology, wasn’t like that a few hundred years ago. Before the 1800s the standard manner of sleep was in 2 parts. Yes, this may sound odd, but reading about the subject, you can understand why. The books of Roger Ekirch ` At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past`and Craig Koslofsky `Evening’s Empire` are an important source of information for this phenomenon.

So what does this two-part-sleep entails? First, there’s a period of 3 to 4 hours of sleep, followed by a couple of hours of wakefulness, then another round of sleep until the morning. Bear in mind that this was the accepted way to sleep during that period in time and it’s quite easy to understand why. With the lack of electricity, especially indoor lighting, there was a proper ambiance to fall asleep. The darkness outside, in particular during the winter months, made it possible to fall asleep early and sleep more. The gap in the middle of the night was just a mechanism that people developed to do more during one day. It is written that this was the ideal time for study and contemplation, sometimes used for reading, praying, talking, smoking, or even having sex. The development of the modern man, with his world of street lighting, as well as coffee houses, changed all this.

Preference for the two-part-sleep cycle could be biological. There even was a study conducted to investigate this. Scientists found out that, in certain conditions which mimic the days in mid-winter with short daylight and long nights, people would stay up only 10 hours in a row, rather than your usual 16 hours/day. After resting enough after their technology-filled lifestyle was abandoned, participants in the study started to have two sleeps! With the middle hours of the night not associated with the-night toss-and-turn that many of us experienced, but with a time of calmness, almost like meditation. In fact, people did not bother to fall back asleep, but used the time to relax. It was shown that in this gap between sleep cycles, the body produces larger amounts of the prolactin. This hormone, responsible for lactation in mammals, is often called the “happiness hormone” and does a lot of good to your body: relax, helps the brain function better and tend to influence remembering information better.

This way of sleep may seem like natural, with benefits, but science is not concluded about this. Giving yourself space without electronics and an ambiance suitable for sleep may be the secret More time intentionally given to rest and relax can prove helpful even if you are embracing the one round of 7 to 8 hours of sleep thought of as a product of modernity. Some people try to do that, one family being known to obtain the sleeping pattern of our ancestors. This was the byproduct of a lot of dark hours, the family changing their modern, electric-filled lifestyle for a month. People living off-the-grid will be able to replicate this with ease.


It is said that nearly half of people living in the US say they don’t get enough sleep. The much use of electronics which leads to sleep deprivation is a health issue to be concern about. Here is what scientists from Harvard (Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School) suggest you can do in order to sleep better, even if you don’t switch to the two-part sleeping cycle:

  1. Avoid consuming chemicals that can interfere with sleep such as caffeine, alcohol and nicotine.
  2. Make your bedroom a sleep-inducing environment. Keep it dark and comfortable and keep electronic devices out of your bedroom.
  3. Establish a soothing bedtime routine to help induce sleep. Taking a shower or bath or quietly reading in bed can prepare the body for sleep.
  4. Maintain a consistent sleep schedule.
  5. If you take naps, keep them short and take them early. Try a power nap of 10 to 20 minutes before 5 p.m.
  6. Eat nutritious meals and get plenty of fresh air and exercise.

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4 Responses to "Your Great-Great Grandparents Didn’t Sleep Like You"

  1. Mitzi says:

    This is an interesting article but as a teacher it makes me cringe when people suggest getting a book to read to put you to sleep As teachers we want students to not become narcotic readers but engaged readers We teach kids to connect with characters , visualize settings and learn from the stories. Please try listening to soft music or learn mindfulness. Please do not tell people to get a book to go to sleep with.

  2. Mitzi says:

    This is an interesting article but as a teacher it makes me cringe when people suggest getting a book to read to put you to sleep As teachers we want students to not become narcotic readers but engaged readers We teach kids to connect with characters , visualize settings and learn from the stories. Please try listening to soft music or learn mindfulness. Please do not tell people to get a book to go to sleep with.

    UNLESS THE COMMENT IS GOOD WE CANT WRITE A COMMENT

  3. Jill says:

    I work graveyard shift so my sleep not only is all screwed up I also don’t get enough.

  4. Nori says:

    Or just do what I do. Do stuff until your tired. Go to bed. When you wake up, get up and do stuff.

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