I bet my Hello Kitty sleep mask that you sleep abnormally.

It's not your fault, though. Blame it on James Watt, Jean Lenoir, Henry Ford, or any one or all of the guys responsible for the industrial revolution. Blame it on Tommy Edison, or if you need a more current scapegoat, Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel, or those Nick at Nite people who run those delightful reruns that beckon to your sleep-deprived spirit like some bare-breasted Siren hopped up on No Doze.

Roger Ekirch, a professor of history at Virginia Tech, had it all figured out years ago but he was afraid to tell the country.

This is how it started:

One of Ekirch's areas of study was the history of the night. As he haunted the library stacks, looking for clues to how people in the past spent the hours between dusk and dawn, he kept stumbling on peculiar references to "first sleep" and "second sleep."

There they were in The Canterbury Tales. And then again in relatively ancient medical textbooks that recommended people sleep on one side during first sleep and the other side during second sleep. He even found stories about how a naked Benjamin Franklin would read between first sleep and second sleep, no doubt being careful not to slam shut a heavy political tome on his schlong of a bookmarker.

Ekirch had rediscovered a normal part of human life. After sunset, people used to go to sleep and then reawaken some time after midnight. They'd then get up, eat, socialize, read, screw, whatever, and go back to bed.

He was freaked out. He didn't know if he should tell the world that it sleeps unnaturally; that it sleeps wrong, that consolidated, or all-at-once-sleep, isn't the norm and it shouldn't be the object of heroic physical, psychological, or pharmaceutical efforts.

So he fretted away, wondering what to do. That is until, serendipitously, he read about research conducted by Thomas Wehr, a psychiatrist at the National Institute of Health.

Wehr did experiments where he kept humans away from artificial light of any kind. After a couple of weeks, they started to fall asleep early – right after the sun went down – and then wake up after midnight. They'd lie awake for an hour or so and then fall back asleep.

Deprived of light, the subjects resorted to historical norms, dividing up their sleep into two distinct periods!

Wehr also found that this period between the first sleep and the second sleep was the most relaxing time of the day, almost akin to some yogi-like meditation. He confirmed this observation biochemically as he found that subjects were pumping out large amounts of prolactin, the post-orgasm hormone, during this mid-sleep period.

Roger Ekirch, the guy who had been studying the history of the night, read about Wehr's experiments and contacted him, whereupon they compared notes.

What they realized was that it was perfectly normal for humans to sleep in two stages; in fact, it's what they were designed to do. It was only the industrial revolution and its requirement that workers show up to work every day at a predetermined unholy hour, along with the invention of the light bulb, that screwed up the first sleep/second sleep behavior.

People no longer went to bed when it got dark. Instead, people put on a gingham dress and played Mother Nature themselves by turning light into darkness by the pull of a light cord any time they chose.

Of course, complete darkness is hard to achieve even when you turn your light off, as the modern nighttime sky positively glows with the scattered light of millions of streetlights, traffic lights, movie theater marquees, and neon signs. Consider that after the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake and subsequent power outage, hundreds of alarmed Angelinos called the police department to report an ominous "silvery cloud" in the sky. What they were seeing, presumably for the very first time, was the Milky Way.

As time went by, people forgot this ancient part of themselves. The first sleep/second sleep thing was cast aside. (Beyond that, the very act of sleep itself was derided by figures such as Edison himself, who felt that it was a sign of laziness.)

Wehr released a subsequent study, augmented with the historical background supplied by Ekirch, and waited for the tsunami of public wonder and gratitude. But nothing happened. Nobody cared.

But people kept on waking up at night, of course. As much as they tried, their genetic memory wouldn't let them forget about first sleep and second sleep. Still, millions of people wale and gnash their teeth because they can't sleep through the night, and doctors continue to write hundreds of thousands of sleep prescriptions for a condition that is, physiologically speaking, perfectly normal.

Heath Ledger

The anxiety over perceived poor sleeping patterns isn't new. Joseph von Meering and Emil Fisher invented the very first sleeping pill, Veronal, in 1903 to combat sleep abnormalities. It was a barbiturate, which meant that patients developed a tolerance to it and needed larger and larger doses.

That might not have been so bad had the recommended dosage not been so close to the fatal one, especially when mixed with alcohol.

The benzodiazepines, like Valium, heralded the next generation of sleep drugs in the 70's. They too had problems, though, in that they were highly addictive because they made users high. Enter Ambien in 1993. It, and its more recent competitor, Lunesta, caused far fewer side effects, which led to the FDA approving them for long-term use.

But here's the rub: a number of studies have shown that Ambien and Lunesta offer no significant improvement in sleep quality. One National Institute of Health study showed that the pills only make people fall asleep 12 minutes faster than placebo, along with only extending sleep an average of 11 minutes.

Add to that the fact these drugs cause anterograde amnesia. That means they make it harder for the brain to form short-term memories. So it's quite possible you'll still fight for sleep after taking Ambien or Lunesta, but you'll think you slept great because you won't remember being awake!

Aside from disruptions of the first sleep and second sleep pattern, there are plenty of other sleep problems that plague humans.

There's sleep apnea, of course, which, depending on who you talk to, is caused by overdeveloped neck muscles, being a fat bastard, possessing a large cow-like tongue or big tonsils, or even having a funny shaped head.

The apnea is characterized by waking up gasping for air several times at night (which you may or may not remember when you wake up). Sufferers usually wake up with a headache, dry mouth, gummy teeth, and feel tired all the time.

The gold standard treatment (aside from exercise and losing weight if you're one of the aforementioned fat bastards) is a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) unit like the one Junior Soprano wore that caused Tony to ask him how many MIGs he shot down last week.

Then there's the far more common occurrence of "sleep maintenance" problems, of which the first-sleep/second-sleep phenomenon has mistakenly been included. The term simply refers to being able to fall asleep and stay asleep and poor sleep maintenance is a far bigger problem than realized, with conservative estimates of sufferers ranging from 50 to 70 million Americans (around 2 out of 5 adults). Poor sleepers may actually wake up hundreds of times a night for only a few seconds each time but not realize it.

They only know that they never feel rested.

The body is designed to cycle through 5 stages of sleep every 90 minutes. The 5th stage is the much-ballyhooed REM stage that's thought to be the most restful stage. It's also where most vivid dreams occur. During this stage the body sends out hormones that pretty much paralyze your arms and legs so they don't act out what you're dreaming. Obviously, as sleepwalkers or night thrashers will attest, it doesn't always work that way.

And if you repeatedly wake up before you get into REM sleep, you'll begin to suffer detrimental effects to memory, motor skills, and performance in general.

Then there's the problem of not being able to fall asleep in the first place. This type of insomnia is often self-inflicted, the result of the brain's refusal to stop thinking about itself.

Sleeping itself is actually contradictory. As sleep professor Emily Martin of NYU stated, "It (sleep) is precious good...but it is a good like none other, because to obtain it one must seemingly give up the imperative to have it."

And have it we must, but no one really knows why. Allan Rechtschaffen and Bernard Bergman of the University of Chicago performed the now classic sleep experiment where they deprived rats of sleep for two weeks.

The rodents began to self-destruct. They developed weird spots and festering sores and their hair fell out. They couldn't shuffle while filming cute Kia commercials and were replaced by hamsters. Then they dropped dead. The researchers couldn't figure out why, though, but their best guess was that just staying awake drained their body systems and made them lose their ability to regulate body temperature.

We don't subject humans to such extreme studies, but we know that even limited sleep deprivation leads to increased blood pressure, incredible cravings for carbs, a drop in body temp, and a weakening of the immune system.

Add all that up and you've got lousy body comp, poor performance, limpdick, and practically any other physical and psychological shortcoming you can come up with.

But when it comes down to specifics, no one really knows why sleep is so important, prompting Rechtschaffen to observe that, "if sleep doesn't serve an absolutely vital function, it is the greatest mistake evolution has ever made."

Perhaps a couple of better questions are why, if it's so important, is it so hard to achieve, and what can be done to make it easier to get to sleep and stay asleep?

Share a Mattress

Of all the obstacles to sleep, perhaps the most daunting is the person sleeping next to you.

People who share their bed are about 50% more likely to be disturbed at night by their bedmate's punching, snoring, farting, or getting up to go to the bathroom or quaff a MAG-10. Then there are the age-old points of contention like temperature and blanket dominance.

When asked to rate their quality of sleep, people almost always said that they slept better when someone was next to them, but brain wave studies suggest otherwise. Test subjects who slept by themselves were less likely to wake up at night and they usually slept 30 minutes longer on nights they spent by themselves.

Contrast that with the effects of Ambien or Lunesta, which caused people to sleep only 11 minutes longer. Examined that way, it seems that sleeping alone is a more effective sleep aid than pharmaceuticals!

Architects and housing developers are aware of the advantages of sleeping alone and they predict that by 2016, half of all custom-built homes will have separate master bedrooms. Somewhere, sleep researcher Neil Stanley, who said that that "there's only one good reason to share a mattress," is nodding his head in approval.

Unfortunately, given hectic modern lifestyles, couples lament that sleeping together in the same bed was the only time they got to spend time together.

So what conclusions have we come to so far?

First, it's clear that sleep is paramount to both mental and physical performance. Whether you want to get stronger, bigger, have better body comp, or get ejicated, getting enough sleep is as crucial or more crucial than anything else you might do to further those ends.

Secondly, we know that waking up at night is probably a vestige of your genetically programmed first sleep/second sleep pattern and that rather than lie awake and curse the sleep gods, you might get up briefly and do something productive or pleasurable.

And thirdly, most prescription sleep aids might not help that much and that any supposed benefit might merely be the cause of a faulty, lyin' memory.

What might be more conducive to a good night's sleep than most pills is sleeping alone, but whether couples will make this choice is doubtful given that sharing the same bed has long been the barometer of connubial bliss; i.e., if couples don't share a bed, neighbors think the Schwarzeneggerian husband must have been schtupping der maid and he's been relegated to the couch.

(An alternative to sleeping alone might be to buy a Tempurpedic bed or something similar. I know from personal experience that I could be sleeping on one side of the bed while three naked coeds were having a pillow fight on the other and not feel the slightest disturbance because the bed's design keeps the movements localized.)

At best, I've provided some understanding of the problem, but none of it might be of much help to the textbook insomniac who lies awake much of the night trying to force sleep as if it were just another heavy weight that needed to be lifted. That is, cruelly, where the paradox rears its drowsy head again – the more you try to sleep, the less likely it is to happen.

There are a few other things you can do to help, some of which are well known, and others not so much. You've probably heard these before, but they bear repeating:

  • Don't go to bed until you're tired.
  • Eliminate alcohol, or at least excess alcohol.
  • Avoid caffeine after noon.
  • Do gentle stretching before bed.
  • Practice meditation every day to the point where you can achieve "quiet mind," the state where your mind stops galloping all over your psychic terrain and instead stops to graze thoughtlessly on a whole lot of stress-free nothin'. It's an incredibly valuable skill to have and you can find plenty of instructions on how to do that if you've got yourself some of that-there Internet.
  • And as mentioned repeatedly in this article, don't stay in bed when you can't sleep.

You might also consider that thyroid problems might be the cause of the problem. And, unbeknownst to many, both hypo- and hyper-active thyroids can interfere with sleepy time.

Lastly, nutrition might be a cause or a contributing factor to poor sleep. Magnesium plays a role in regulating sleep patterns, and the typical American diet is often deficient in this vital mineral. Four or five hundred milligrams before bedtime can often give immediate benefits.

We spend one out of every three hours of our existence sleeping. Given its importance, it seems like a good idea to understand it better. Maybe then we can stop chasing it so that like a beautiful woman, it'll miss the attention and end up granting us the ultimate gift, which in this case is restful, virtually uninterrupted, sleep.

  1. Kolbert, Elizabeth, "Up All Night: The Science of Sleeplessness," The New Yorker, March 11, 2013, pp. 24 – 27.
  2. Luoma, TC, "Luoma's Big Damn Big of Knowledge," Penguin Classics, 10th printing, 2013.
  3. Randall, David K., "Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep," W.W. Norton and Company, 2012.