How many times have you fell soundly asleep some random evening, ready to enjoy a restful night, only to wake up 3-4 hours later and then toss and turn trying desperately to fall back asleep? If you’re like most people, this middle of the night waking can be frustrating, challenging and disheartening. We think there’s something wrong: why are we waking up and why can’t we fall back asleep?
What if, instead of this being considered aberrant or different, it was exactly how your body is programmed?
Fresh off our discussion of common vs. normal, let’s analyze sleep in that context. We have been programmed to think that normal human sleep should be a block of time that we dedicate to rest that follows this format: get in bed and fall asleep without struggle, sleep soundly without waking for 7-9 hours and wake up easily feeling well rested. Subsequently, if someone doesn’t follow that pattern then they are considered to have a sleep disturbance/disorder/problem. So those that can’t fall asleep easily, those that wake up in the middle of the night and those that just can’t get out of bed or don’t feel rested are labeled sleep challenged.
Having one or more of these problems is very common and unfortunately leads to frustration and often medication to “fix” the problem(s).
Common, yes, but is it normal?
Normal Sleep Patterns
First, we need to understand what normal is for human sleep patterns and that starts with dismissing our current thinking of what sleep is supposed to be like. Here are the most common sleep styles/patterns we see with most mammals, including humans:
Monophasic Sleep – sleeping in one chunk (i.e. from 10pm-6am) which is what most of us do or try to do.
Biphasic Sleep – sleeping in two distinct periods, often seen in people who nap regularly, such as toddlers or the afternoon siesta approach.
Polyphasic Sleep – sleeping in multiple chunks throughout the day, seen mostly with newborns and animals, such as my dog. Some high performance biohackers are trying this approach and claim to do well with it but the jury is still out on that.
Segmented Sleep – sleeping in one chunk that’s marked by a period of wakefulness in the middle, seen in many historical and non westernized cultures. An example of this would be sleeping from 9pm-1am, being awake til 2-2:30 then sleeping til 6am. Some define this as a two period sleep (biphasic) since it’s two distinct sleep cycles but regardless of the name the concept is the same.
That last one sounds a little like a type of insomnia, right??
Or is it…?
Humans, when given the opportunity to fall into natural sleep habits, gravitate toward the segmented sleep pattern. Basically this means we have a natural instinct to sleep in two distinct shifts, separated by a time of quiet wakefulness called mid sleep.
Therefore a “normal” night of sleep would consist with falling asleep early and easily, sleeping 3-4 hours (first sleep), waking up and being quietly awake for 1-2 hours (mid sleep), falling asleep again for 3-4 hours (second sleep) then rising in the morning feeling rested.
The entrance to and exit from sleep are similar to the current perspective on sleep but our actual natural sleep pattern is a bit different. It still consists of 7-8 hours of sleep but also includes 1-2 hours of rest in a quiet wakeful state.
This segmented rest period, according to a growing group of researchers, is the natural and hardwired sleep pattern for humans. So if you wake up at one or two in the morning it isn’t necessarily abnormal and actually makes sense because it means you’ve completed phase one of sleep. It shouldn’t be expected that you fall back asleep immediately because you will naturally have a time of quiet wakefulness that follows and will eventually transition into the second phase of sleep.
Not only is this two shift sleep biologically natural but the mid sleep has historically been a time for creativity, thoughtfulness, contemplation, light work, reading and other activities such as lovemaking and physical intimacy.
Why do we sleep differently now?
Several reasons, a few of which are:
– Artificial light
– Too busy
– Blood sugar issues
We have been transitioning away from segmented sleep over the last century as artificial light enabled us to stay up later and life demanded us to be up earlier, effectively shortening our sleep window. Segmented sleep is a 9-10 hour commitment and most people just don’t have the time to be in bed that long, which often requires us to go to bed much sooner than we’re used to, often shortly after the sun goes down. Modern life has encouraged/forced us into a limited sleep window which has then forced us, in order to get adequate rest, into a monophasic (one phase) sleep pattern. Additionally. most of us are over busy, over tired and over worked which means that often we sleep right through the body’s mid sleep break on an attempt just to catch up some rest and recovery.
What is being studied now is if this is any different when it comes to physiological impact/benefit. Is our newly created monophasic sleep as restful, rejuvenating and recovering as segmented sleep? Or biphasic or polyphasic sleep? This seemingly simple question is heavily debated on both sides and has yet to be decided but my gut tells me that our newer sleep pattern will do but not be as ideal as the older, more natural and longer segmented sleep pattern.
When we look at the other components of a night’s rest, such as the entrance to and exit from sleep and some of the mid sleep variations (including not being able to fall back asleep) we see a more complex scene playing out.
The failure to fall asleep easily and quickly is common but not normal. Normally functioning humans should be able to fall asleep without much hassle and the failure to do so is influenced by several things…
Technology and artificial light
One of there biggest challenges to the body’s ability to fall asleep easily is the prevalence of light (often bright lights) after sundown. The slowly changing hues of the sun’s rays signal the brain to start the process toward rest. If we miss the yellow and orange sun rays, the brain doesn’t get a strong cue to release melatonin, which bathes our brain and body and slows both down. Additionally, if our eyes (and therefore brain) experience bright lights, particularly the shorter wave, more intense blue light spectrum of TVs, white overhead lights and computers, it gives the opposite signal of alertness and waking.
We are overly stressed people and this simple state influences our body considerably. When the body is stressed it relies heavily upon a group of hormones to keep it functioning and these are often the fight or flight, highly activated type of chemicals that rev our engines. Although they are fantastic when necessary they can make it difficult to relax the body quickly and are often further influenced/enhanced by our eyes seeing bright lights at night. Add our infatuation with intense TV shows that stimulate the same pathways and it often becomes very difficult for the body and brain to easily transition to the relaxed state it falls asleep best in.
This simple little chemical can be a savior at times but is often problematic when used in the second half of the day. Coffee, tea, soft drinks and chocolate are all sources of caffeine, which has an activity span in the body of up to 8 hours. This means that the tea you have in the afternoon and the chocolate bar for dessert all might be stimulating the brain too much to wind down effectively.
Similarly, what we eat throughout the day and at night will impact our ability to fall asleep well. Often the heavier the dinner and the more sugar and protein consumed the more it keeps the body awake/energized. Everyone is different here but the key is to know that what you eat in the second half of the day, particularly the last few hours, can have an impact on how well you fall asleep. For those people with digestion issues (reflux, indigestion) this becomes a very big variable. Alcohol is also a big disruptor of sleep both on the entrance to sleep and quality of sleep perspective.
Having an ambient room temperature that’s not right will make it harder to fall asleep. Typically the hotter it is the more difficult it will be to sleep while a slightly cooler to cold bedroom makes for the easiest transition into sleep. Once again this is individualized but the important thing is to be aware that it plays a big role.
Potentially more than anything, our sleep habits impact our sleep. We fall into routines/structures and the body and brain get used to what we put ourselves through and make that the default. This often means that if you have a habit of lying in bed for an hour before you fall asleep your body is programmed to do just that. It doesn’t mean you are stuck but it means that you have some underlying trends that keep you behaving that way that will need to be addressed.
Staying Asleep and/or Falling Into Phase 2
As we already covered, waking up in the middle of the night to a calm wakeful rest period is pretty normal but fully waking up (both mentally and physically) isn’t quite as normal, nor is the inability to fall back asleep. This shouldn’t happen on a regular basis and when it does it can be due to a few things…
Waking in the middle of the night is common and normal but often the multitude of stresses and responsibilities we carry the burden of can quickly rev us out of the quiet, wakeful, restful mid sleep and into a more fully awake and physiologically active state. Worrying about work, deadlines, money, family and other things (such as falling back to sleep) can turn a normal mid sleep wake into a full awakening very quickly.
The other mid sleep disruption stems from physiological issues such as blood sugar, urination, sleep apnea and light sensation. People with blood sugar issues will often wake in the middle of the night as a result of low blood sugar and the subsequent hormones that release stored glucose to fuel the body that perceives a moderate stress. Similarly, people with poor urinary systems that wake to go to the bathroom often are awakened by the physical act of getting out of bed and going to the bathroom. Sleep apnea and other breathing disorders alarm the body and the release of stress hormones quickly wake the body out of the quiet mid sleep. Finally, seeing light (particularly white and or/overhead light) will stimulate the brain to start the full waking process, making it more difficult to fall asleep again.
Another post in and of itself is the quality of sleep one gets each night. Both from a brain and body perspective, several factors influence how well we sleep and they all play a role in if/how we wake up in the middle of the night and how we feel in the morning after waking and throughout the day. One of the more important things to keep in mind about sleep quality (until I can explore further) is that going to bed earlier stimulates better quality of sleep and therefore increases the likelihood of mid sleep.
For the growingly minuscule population that wakes up fully rested without an alarm, I commend you. Normal and effective sleep patterns, regardless of the phases or styles, end with the slow and gentle waking of a rested body/brain/mind. But, as many of us know, it is common to wake up tired, groggy and/or feeling not fully rested. Once again, this isn’t normal but is certainly expected given how most of us treat sleep.
If we don’t transition into sleep well, get to bed early enough, sleep well, wake up too much during the night, get up too early or simply don’t get enough time in bed we will not wake up well. How we feel in the morning is a good indication of how normal our sleep was on a given night (or last couple nights) and how we feel on a daily basis is a good indication at how normally we are sleeping in general. If we don’t practice good sleep hygiene we might be able to get by but we won’t feel or function optimally.
Sleep Hygiene Program
We practice good hygiene in many ways and sometimes obsess over it (often when it doesn’t play a major role in health) but when it comes to things like food, movement and sleep we don’t give it much thought at all. As one of the pillars of health sleep hygiene should be a priority. What is sleep hygiene? Basically it means taking good care of your sleep…
Make Sleep A Priority
– If you don’t this whole concept won’t work.
– Commit to a sleep window of 8-10 hours. Might seem like a lot but it’s the price you pay for good health and being well rested.
– Commit to an early bedtime. This doesn’t have to be 8pm but shouldn’t be 11 either.
Optimize the Entrance to Sleep Transition
– After sunset, minimize the overhead lights and electronic screens you see.
– Limit caffeine in the second half of the day.
– Ease up on the sugar, alcohol and big meals before bed.
– Destress at night and limit the stressful things you expose yourself to. Laughing is a great way to transition into a relaxed state.
– Keep your bedroom cool and comfortable.
– Limit LED lights or other glowing electronics in the bedroom.
Manage Mid Sleep If You Wake
– Remember it’s normal to wake up in the middle of the night.
– Allow yourself to be awake and know it’s still useful to simply rest in bed, even if awake.
– Don’t turn on any light during the night. If absolutely necessary, make it a lamp or something akin to candlelight intensity.
– Find what interests/works for you during mid sleep. Jot down thoughts, read, cuddle, meditate or just relax.
Wake Up Without An Alarm Whenever Possible
– Not feasible for many of us as we currently sleep but very possible with proper sleep hygiene and the good rest that results.
– The more consistent your sleep and wake times are the easier and more naturally this happens.
The “I Can Get By” or “Sleep When You’re Dead” Programs
The “I Can Get By” approach to sleep seems to be the most common mindset these days. Yes, you can get by, maybe for a little while and maybe for a bit longer, depending how robust you’re built, how you take care of yourself in other ways, how well you manage stresses in your life and how lucky you are. But without a doubt you will be functioning sub-optimally during that time and it will catch up to you. In most people it manifests as little things they don’t think much of like headaches, sore joints, less patience, a hard time losing weight, more cravings for sweets, slight depression, memory lapses and other general mental and physical ailments. For others it comes in bigger packages like obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Which brings us to the “Sleep When You’re Dead” program. Yes, you can sleep when you’re dead but the less you sleep now the sooner that will be and the less you’ll probably enjoy how you feel in the meantime.
While sleep may not be a panacea it certainly makes everything better and good sleep hygiene helps us be healthier, happier and stay pretty hip, with the exception of not keeping up with all the late night shows.
The Bottom Line on Normal Sleep
1. Sleep is important. You can not shortchange or try to “hack” sleep. If you do it will show itself in your health, sometimes quickly, sometimes down the road.
2. If you feel tired you’re doing something wrong. Fatigue is common but shouldn’t be considered normal. The main problem we have is not allocating/devoting enough time to sleep/rest.
3. You should fall asleep easily, sleep well and wake up rested, regardless of it you sleep in one or two phases.
4. It’s normal to wake up in the middle of the night, particularly the earlier and smoother you fall asleep. Don’t stress about it if you do wake up as it is still restful. You can use that time for good and you will fall back to sleep if you allow yourself to.
5. Good sleep hygiene is extremely helpful. Set a good environment and behaviors that encourage normal sleep and it will make it much easier to have good rest.
Thanks for reading, have a great night!
P.S. Some people also use the term interrupted sleep for the segmented sleep pattern but I’ll save that for the type of nights that newborn parents or firefighters might go through which is not the same as the natural segmented waking pattern.
There are many more sleep related topics I’ll explore in the future, including the use of melatonin and other supplements to aid in sleep regulation.