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Is 8 Hours of Sleep REALLY Necessary? Breaking the Myth

sleeping coupleWaking up minutes, hours . . . any amount of time really before the alarm clock screeches in your ear can be sheer agony – especially if you’re going on little sleep for days in a row. The idea of going to work on too little sleep is enough to make anyone cringe, especially when you’re always being told how getting eight hours of sleep every night is important for your health. But is it really?

Some revisited historical data along with some new evidence suggests otherwise.

Long Before the 8-Hour Rule

We’ve been told our entire lives that we should be sleeping through the night. I mean, it’s basically the goal for our parents from the minute we are born. But recent evidence and history is showing us that sleeping through the night is anything but “normal.”

In fact, a look back in time shows without a doubt that people use to sleep in phases. According to Roger Ekirch, a sleep historian at Virginia Tech University and author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, humans used to typically sleep in two separate four-hour blocks. During the time that they were awake between these blocks of sleep, they would do anything from staying in bed and praying or thinking about their dreams, to getting up to do tasks or even visiting friends before heading back to sleep.

There have been references to segmented sleep, such as “first sleep” and “second sleep” in archival documents and literature from the 15th and 16th centuries. This gradually began to change throughout the 17th century, and by the 1920s, first and second sleep references had disappeared completely. “Now people call it insomnia,” says Ekirch.

There’s even some fairly recent research to back up the “ancient” phenomenon, via a famous study by scientist Thomas Wehr in the 90s. Participants in this study were subjected to 14 hours of darkness each night. It was found that they eventually shifted into a routine of biphasic sleep where they took around two hours to fall asleep and then slept in two phases of about four hours each, with an hour or so awake in between.

Why the Shift?

So what changed? Why do we now consider waking during the night to be a problem? Turns out Thomas Edison and the invention of the light bulb may be at fault. Before the invention of artificial light, people had to deal with up to 14 hours of darkness depending on where they were. This left them with plenty of time to sleep in phases and have the flexibility to do anything else they wanted. This artificial light has given us “extra daylight” to be able to be more productive. But our dark/nighttime has been cut short, leaving us with little choice but to get our sleeping done and over with in one shot.

While making rounds visiting neighbors may not be acceptable middle-of-the-night behavior anymore, you may want to stop beating yourself up so much the next time you get up in the wee hours of the morning for no apparent reason.

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