Beauty sleep. There’s nothing like it to repair the mind, body, soul, and our looks. Healing tissue, processing information, refreshing attitudes, these are all things that exist in the realm of a good night’s sleep. But what is a good night’s sleep really? Most of us have been taught that a straight eight hours is required to be fresh and at our best. However, the fact is that one-third of American adults today (myself included), wake in the middle of the night and have trouble getting back to sleep. For many of us, when that happens, we start fretting, concerned about the ramifications of not getting that eight hours of uninterrupted rest.
However, there is new research that can transform sleep concerns into sleep opportunities for better health. The Karolinska Institute of Clinical Neuroscience suggests that waking in the middle of the night is not a problem or a disorder needing medication, but is actually the right thing to do, and our ancestors knew all about this.
The study acknowledges that of people who experience “nocturnal awakenings,” many are prescribed medication or self-medicate with over the counter sleep aids that can leave you drowsy and dull. There is “mounting evidence that nocturnal awakenings aren’t abnormal, but are in fact the natural rhythm your body gravitates toward.” It is the “compressed, continuous eight-hour sleep routine to which everyone aspires today, that is unprecedented in human history.”
In ancient times humans slept in two four-hour blocks, separated by a period of wakefulness lasting an hour or more. During this time some might stay in bed, pray, talk to their partner, or ponder their dreams. This allowed humans time to wake after dreaming and have a bit of quiet in which to reflect. “This time was a pathway to their subconscious,” says sleep historian Roger Ekirch from Virginia Tech. “Our ancestors regarded dreams as a critically important part of their lives.”
If we are programmed to mentally drift among the quiet of the night for an uninterrupted hour or two, then midnight wakefulness is the most natural thing in the world. To think of this time awake in the night as a potential portal to the interior life takes the edge off of sleeplessness and opens us to the opportunity for mindful reflection that is so important to balanced good health. So when wakefulness comes in the wee hours, try embracing this time as part of the repair and refresh cycle, a time that nature provides to cleanse and heal thoughts as well as tissue.