[CONTEST NOTE: Winners of yesterday's contest to win copies of Dr. Bill Thomas's new book, Tribes of Eden, will be announced in this spot on Friday. If you have time today, you might enjoy attending the live, online party for Bill's book. It is being streamed beginning at 3PM eastern U.S. time at the "Tribes" website.]
It is conventional wisdom that sleep problems, particularly insomnia, are a common affliction of age but not according to a variety of aging experts. As renowned geriatrician Robert N. Butler tells us in his 2010 book, The Longevity Prescription:
”The old dogma that poor sleep is an inevitable part of aging is simply not true: Age in itself is not a predictor of insomnia and, when insomnia occurs, it is precipitated by other factors, many of which can be changed or compensated for.”
Diseases and conditions can contribute to sleeplessness and possible solutions for those should be discussed with one's physician. Often, however, changes in routine such as keeping a regular schedule, limiting caffeine intake and getting enough exercise, among others, can ensure a good night's sleep.
Not that you would know that by me. I've tried all the suggestions and still, I frequently fall asleep way too early and then waken in the middle of the night which then makes me tired by afternoon.
Or, I waken to pee and can't get back to sleep. Or, even when I can stay awake until a more sensible bedtime hour, I awaken at 1AM or 2AM anyway without much chance to sleep again.
Sometimes, knowing I am perpetuating a sleep schedule that is inconvenient and that I don't like, I get up when I waken at odd hours and read the morning papers online and answer email. Other times, I try reading myself back to sleep with a book or watch something on television.
Occasionally, I find myself in that cozy, little place between waking and sleep where the mind wanders on its own and unlike dreaming, I can keep track of the odd and interesting trips it takes.
But that's not sleep and I'm no more rested from it than I am when I get out of bed at 2AM.
Recently, I read an irresistibly fascinating book, At Day's Close – Night in Times Past, by A. Roger Ekirch. “Times past” refers to pre-industrial society, the early modern era from about 1500 to 1850, most especially before artificial light.
There are a lot of other reasons to recommend this book, but what I'm here to talk about today is the idea of “first sleep” and “second sleep” which may have been so common in centuries past, and in rural areas up until the early 20th century, that writers hardly thought it worth commenting upon.
”...fragments in several languages...give clues to the essential features of this puzzling pattern of repose.
“Both phases of sleep lasted roughly the same length of time, with individuals waking sometime after midnight before returning to rest...Men and women referred to both intervals as if the prospect of awakening in the middle of the night was common knowledge that required no elaboration...”
“After midnight, pre-industrial households usually began to stir. Many of those who left their beds merely needed to urinate...
“Some persons, however, after arising, took the opportunity to smoke tobacco, check the time, or tend a fire. Thomas Jubb, an impoverished Leeds clothier, rising around midnight, 'went into Cow Lane & hearing ye clock strike twelve' returned 'home & went to bed again.'”
Other people rose to study for awhile, attend to household chores or check on the well-being of a child and Benjamin Franklin, reports Ekirch, mentions that while visiting London, would spend up to an hour writing or reading after waking before returning to sleep.
Some people never left their beds during the waking period between first and second sleep and “sexual intimacy often ensued between couples.” In the lower classes, Ekirch notes,
”Because exhaustion prevented workers from copulating upon first going to bed, intercourse occurred 'after the first sleep' when 'they have more enjoyment' and 'do it better.'”
Ekirch posits that it was the ubiquity of artificial light – first gas, then electricity – that changed humanity's sleep habits:
”Heightened exposure to artificial lighting, both at home and abroad, altered circadian rhythms as old as man himself.”
What I wonder after reading all this is if some retired people like me who no longer need to rise and rush off to work in the morning as they did for 40 or 50 years, return after a time to a pre-industrial schedule of sleep that appears, thanks to Mr. Ekirch's research, to have been commonplace for most of mankind's history.
Of course, I have no way to confirm that but now, instead of fighting, lamenting and trying to change my sleep pattern, I'm going to give the idea of first and second sleep a whirl by accepting it as my personal, normal behavior.
Who knows, perhaps when I've spent those nighttime hours getting up to potter about or do some reading or snuggle into the covers for that magical half-dream/half waking state of mind, I have been on to something ancient.
And maybe if I just relax into this first and second sleep idea, give myself permission, I'll be able to fall asleep a second time like the people of yore.
I'll let you know how it goes.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Marvin Waldman: In Search of the Clitoris