The Natural Rhythms of SleepJul 03, 2014 01:37AM ● By Rev. Ed O’Malley
What if we had no job or school or children to awaken us or place demands on our time? Would we sleep around the clock? How do we know when to sleep and what happens when we don’t? Why do we sleep at night, arguably the most vulnerable time of the day?
To answer these questions, we first must consider where we’ve come from and how we developed. For millennia, indigenous peoples across the globe slept and rose with the sun. They lived within the rhythms of nature, determined by the changing daylight and seasonal variations in day length. Remembering that our bodies evolved within nature helps
us to understand and respect the inherent rhythms of our biology.
In Western society some time ago, people slept in two blocks of time separated by an interval of wakefulness. The recently uncovered but largely forgotten “first and second sleep” practice of medieval and early modern Europe was so common that it barely merited reference in the literature of the time. A typical pattern involved an evening meal soon after sunset, which was followed by one or two hours of wakefulness by candlelight or firelight, then an initial “first sleep” period from about 8 pm to midnight. Adults then would rise and participate in a variety of activities, from smoking a pipe, reading and visiting neighbors to saying prayers or having intimate relations.
Modern research at the National Institutes of Health uncovered an identical pattern in experimental subjects forced to stay in laboratory-controlled darkness from 8 pm until 10 am. Participants were recorded sleeping for 4 hours, lying awake in a quiet meditative-like state for an hour or two, then returning to sleep for another 4-hour block. Besides reporting an increase in overall well-being, the subjects also remarked on how especially alert and awake they felt after the month-long study.
This natural pattern is in stark contrast to the solid 8-hour sleep block advocated by most sleep specialists today. What have we lost? In 2007, recognizing overwhelming research findings on the negative effects of night shift work causing disruption of the circadian rhythm, The World Health Organization listed night shift work as a potential carcinogen. Current research confirms a host of other harmful medical affects resulting from working against our biological clocks. What many of us have lost is our health and well-being. Further, in disconnecting from the natural sleep and wake rhythms of the planet, we seem to have lost nature as well.
Unfortunately, the bright light of electronic devices
inhibits melatonin release and, consequently, sleep onset.
So what can be done? Daylight Savings Time notwithstanding, there are several measures we can take to realign ourselves with the natural light of the sun and the night “light” of the moon and stars. When we arise in the morning, we can pull back the curtains to allow full light into our room. Or we can dress or have breakfast where there is plenty of natural light exposure. Those of us with dogs probably already get this early light exposure via our canines’ morning walk. Those without pets would do well to take themselves for a morning walk. However, there will be those mornings where the weather may be less than inviting or time is in short supply. Full spectrum daylight bulbs in the kitchen and dayrooms can provide a reasonable substitute. Even better, although requiring a small financial investment, would be a sunrise alarm clock. These devices turn on and then progressively brighten to simulate dawn. An additional benefit is this helps our brain to awaken as light travels through closed eyelids. Lastly, the light can be programmed to stay on for an additional half hour or more to provide substitute morning sunlight stimulation.
To complete the natural rhythm, sunset exposure is just as crucial. Our ancestors would naturally slow down when exposed to the longer wavelengths of sunset light. Dusk stimulates the brain to produce melatonin, known as the hormone of darkness. Without melatonin, our brain has a hard time knowing when to prepare for sleep. So low light exposure after dusk – similar to the effect of starlight – is as important as bright light exposure is in the morning. Unfortunately, the bright light of electronic devices inhibits melatonin release and, consequently, sleep onset. So we need to put away our devices after dinner and instead read, play with our children, converse with family members, plan our tomorrow. Or, we can just wait for that special time in between first and second sleep time to plan a natural, healthy, nature-connected future.
Ed O’Malley, Ph.D., FAASM is a naturalist and founder of Your Optimal Nature, an education and consulting company designed to bring people to optimal states of awareness. He holds a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and is a diplomat to the American Board of Sleep Medicine. This spring, O’Malley joined The Graduate Institute as the academic director and program coordinator for a 12-credit graduate certificate program in ecotherapy and cultural sustainability. For more information, visit Learn.edu/EcoTherapy.