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Sleep: a history. Sleep: some advice.

Did you know that long distance migratory birds can fly with one half of their brain asleep? Or that aquatic mammals can traverse the ocean with a similar process? Or that numerous students daily attempt a similar approach to their education?

Well that last example is an uninformed extrapolation of the first two but it seems close to accurate.

Today’s post will focus on the one thing that we are looking forward to over Christmas, a big long, end of year sleep.

Sleep: The how’s and why’s and wherefore’s.

Sleep is great, sleep is enjoyable, sleep makes us feel good. It something that we have in common with all other animals. It is something that has changed over the last 500 years.

It is also something that we now have far greater expectations of. Of how long we are entitled to sleep. Of how well we should sleep.

But what is it?

Sleep is regenerative process for our mind and body that is governed by our circadian rhythm. This a 24 hour cycle that determines our wakefulness and sleepiness dependent largely upon light exposure being transferred from our retina’s to our brains.

Like all animals we are most wakeful around dawn and dusk and then vary throughout the rest of the day.

That post lunch fatigue you suffer is more likely a lowering in your circadian rhythm than a result of that double beef burger you ate.

But before we start looking into siesta’s and circadian rhythms it might useful to look into what is ‘normal’ sleep.

What is ‘normal’ sleep?

In the 1990’s psychiatrist Thomas Wehr placed a series of patients, of varying ages, in a cycle of 14 hours darkness per day (this was before the proliferation of laptops/tablets/smartphones).

Over several weeks all the participants of his study rearranged their sleeping hours to a remarkably similar pattern.

An hour or two getting to sleep, often reading, followed by 4 hours sleep followed by a wakeful period of an hour or two followed by another 4 hours of sleep.

This cycle is known as a biphasic sleeping pattern

In the early 2000’s an historian named Roger Ekirsch compiled a paper that presented over 500 references throughout literature that showed bi-phasic sleeping patterns.

From Homer to Chaucer to the modern day Tib people of Nicaragua there is continued mention of a first sleep and a second sleep.

So if humans naturally fall into a biphasic sleep pattern, and historically have always done so, where did this 8 hours sleep per night come from?

I have perused the interwebs for days in search of an answer to this and have found nothing concrete however Thomas Edison and his light bulb is the easiest answer.

With an increased access to light there was an increased need to work later as well as entertain later and therefore a gradual shy away from the bed at dark habit of humans.

Where do Siesta’s fit into this biphasic sleeping program?

Slap bang in the middle of it.

Siesta’s can broken into two groups, power naps and longer naps.

Power naps, less than 30min, have repeatedly been proven to increase productivity, reduce fatigue and offset a poor night’s sleep.

Longer naps of 90min or so have been shown as a brilliant way to offset a 5-6 hour night’s sleep. And within certain circles are argued to fall in the bi-phasic sleep pattern.

A great many cultures around the world, industrialised or not, base their working days around a 2 hour siesta break after lunch. And as explained earlier this is not due to an indulgent lunch but more so on our natural sleep cycles and our mid afternoon fatigue.

I will admit that my massage table sees me (medically) siesta-ing on a regular basis.

So what is ‘normal’ sleep?

There is no such thing. It is totally physiologically normal to wake after 3-4 hours of sleep, be awake for 30min to two hours and then go back to sleep.

What is not normal is expecting for you to be asleep for 8 hours within minutes of your head hitting the pillow.

A normal sleep for some may only be a 5hour sleep at night followed by a 2 hour sleep after lunch.

What can we do to get a better sleep?


Laptop’s, tablets, phones all project blue light. Blue light is what stops our retina’s from going into the sleep phase, it tricks our brains into thinking that it is still daytime.

Read a book under the light of a soft light. Lie in bed, listen to some music, listen to a podcast. Get back up, make the following nights dinner. Wait for a lull, a sense of fatigue and then place your head on your pillow.

Above all don’t stress about a lack of sleep. Your perception of a ‘good’ night’s sleep is notoriously appalling.

A very large sleep study conducted by Matt Bianchi, a neurologist from MIT, on insomniacs showed that many ‘insomniac’s’ actually get a good number of hours of sleep in per night but think they get very few.

And the anxiety of thinking that you had a poor night sleep is just as damaging as actually having a bad night sleep.

A number of patients would sleep for 6-8 hours and on waking report that they had been awake all night.

Perception is vitally important.

There is no normal.

It is not normal to be asleep within minutes of going to bed.

It is not normal to sleep unwoken the whole way through the night.

If you do wake and feel fitful. Get up. Get out of bed. Have a shower. Make lunch for tomorrow. Write some poetry. Read it to your partner. Hope for an amorous reward. Do some exercise.

Don’t stress about it. Don’t lie in bed getting angry. It will not help you get back to sleep and may alter your perception of how you slept.

And if you’re still worried go speak to your doctor and have a sleep study done.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year
Lots of love
Errol St Osteo

Posted in : How the Body Works
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