Understanding Segmented Sleep, and How It Can Help You

Segmented sleep is becoming a popular topic of late. With the rise of sleep hacking and biohacking, more and more people (sleep experts in particular) have been exploring the concept of segmented sleep.

It might seem like a new concept, but the idea has actually been around for quite a while.

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The history of segmented sleep

The history of segmented sleep
Segmented sleep has been around for a while

Segmented sleep, resting in 2 shifts/phases, is not a new concept though. In fact, people across cultures and from all walks of life naturally slept in 2 distinct phases until the late 19th century.

A. Roger Ekikrch, a historian, uncovered the history behind segmented sleep in his book, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. The book describes how people used to rest a couple of hours after dusk (known as first sleep) and then woke a few hours later for one to two hours.

This “in-between time” was mainly used for praying or visiting neighbors. Some used the time for doing things like sewing, chopping wood or reading (relying on moonlight, or oil lamps). Others used it for sex.

After the 1-2 hour break, they would go to sleep again.

The second sleep phase would then continue until dawn.

Ekirch found evidence that bi-modal sleeping was considered the norm back in the day. It started in the upper classes in Northern Europe during the preindustrial time, and spread to the rest of Western society for over 200 years.

The practice faded little by little. By 1920, society abandoned the idea.

What could have changed?

Read on to find out.

The rise of monophasic sleep

Why segmented sleep went out of fashion
Electricity might have phased out segmented sleep

In his book, Ekirch pointed out that before artificial lighting, people had to go to bed at sundown since it was too dark to do anything. With the invention of the electric light, more activities were possible later into the night, hence people started going to bed late as well.

So the invention of light is basically what is responsible for our current monophasic sleep habit where we sleep once, and for a long period, at night.

But does that mean the way we sleep now is the new norm for our bodies?

Not necessarily, as a research in the early 90s found.

Research on segmented sleep

Research on segmented sleep
Segmented sleep might be our natural way of sleeping

Thomas Wehr, a psychiatrist, carried out an experiment in 1993 that demonstrated how people naturally wake up in the middle of the night when they aren’t exposed to artificial lighting for a long time.

The participants of his experiment were left in the dark for 14 hours (instead of the typical 8 hours) every day for a month. It took some time for their sleep to regulate, but then they naturally started to sleep for 4 hours, wake up for 1-3 hours, then sleep again for 4 hours.

Conclusion? Segmented sleep might very well be our natural way of sleeping.

Sleep once, or multiple times?

Sleep once, or multiple times?
Segmented sleep might be the answer if you struggle with sleep

As Wehr’s research demonstrated,  it is extremely likely that segmented sleep is hard-wired into our brains.

That segmented sleep is our natural way of sleeping.

But the sleep/wake schedule in today’s society is not that flexible. Most people are 9-to-5 workers, so sleeping in one large chunk of time during the night makes more sense.

How about people who work the night shift? Working for prolonged periods at night can pose threats to our health and some researchers think that segmented sleep offers a solution for this kind of work schedule. In fact, another research by Thomas Wehr indicated that getting roughly 7 -8 hours of sleep in segments over the course of a 24-hour period is the same as sleeping continuously for 8 hours.

So if you are struggling with sleep, having an extra nap (or a few, for that matter) might not be a bad idea after all.

What are your thoughts on segmented sleep?

Do you have any experiences, or tips, to share?

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