Woman reading at night next to a lamp
Sleep Medicine

Two-Phase Sleep: A Trend From Pre-Modern Times

By on 03/18/2022

One surprise about waking up in the middle of the night these days is that you often have company.

You can’t get back to sleep so you send a text to someone; they immediately text back. You post on a Words with Friends game, and your opponent plays right back.

It’s 4 a.m. Why isn’t everyone sleeping?

You may think of it, with great anxiety, as insomnia. But some sleep experts think of it as a far less worrisome phenomenon: a return to a sleep style that existed in ancient cultures called phased sleep.

Phased sleep is, as it sounds, sleeping in phases. You go to bed early and sleep for a number of hours. Then you wake up for a few hours, and go back to sleep until morning.

Dorveille, as the French Say

While modern-day folks may fret about interrupted sleep, previous generations thought nothing of it. The French even have a word for it: dorveille, or wakesleep.

Sleeping in cycles was common during pre-industrial times, when electricity hadn’t been invented. Back then, people went to sleep at sundown, slept for a few hours and woke up.

They socialized, read, pursued procreation, enjoyed the quiet hours and went back to sleep.  

Then came factories and offices that summoned workers at 8 or 9 a.m., and the belief that eight or nine hours of uninterrupted sleep was the healthy norm.

New Interest Since the Pandemic

COVID-19 seems to have reversed the trend for some of us.

“There are so many factors, when you consider the pandemic,” says Kunal Kumar, MD, Medical Director of Sleep Medicine at Einstein Healthcare Network.

For two years, many of us have been confined at home and not able to go to the gym or get regular exercise.

We’re less tired and “the sleep drive is less,” Dr. Kumar says. “Also, if you’re not going to the office in the morning, you can sleep a little later.”

And then there’s the pandemic stress – and now worry about the war in Ukraine – that wakes us up in the middle of the night, ruminating about the future. “You may not be able to fall back to sleep,” he says.

Healthy, or Not?

There is debate among sleep experts as to whether phased sleep is good or bad for you. Some scientists think phased sleep is a natural, biologically driven phenomenon that is perfectly safe and healthy. Others think eight or nine hours of uninterrupted sleep is the most restorative and beneficial.

The objective facts are unknown, says Dr. Kumar, because few if any studies have evaluated which form of sleep is healthier. “It’s a point of debate,” he says.

“Overall, we know we need to get eight to nine hours of sleep in a 24-hour period,” he says. How you do it “is a matter of personal preference.”

Some people take long naps. Some societies incorporate afternoon sleeping in their cultures. Now, it seems phased sleeping is making something of a comeback.

In any case, Dr. Kumar says, the worst thing you can do if you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep is worry about it.

“You don’t want to look at your clock and get anxious about it,” he says. “You’re associating anxiety with sleep and that doesn’t help.”

Your body has an internal clock that will ensure that you make up the sleep within a few days, he says. 

Instead, Dr. Kumar says, you should spend the wakeful time in the middle of the night doing restful things, such as meditating, listening to soothing music or an audio book, or using one of the relaxation apps that are meant to calm you down.

Think of it as the phased sleep of your forebears, and enjoy it.

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