Is insomnia actually good for you?
Find yourself wide awake in the small hours, itching to do the ironing? Turns out you’re just sleeping like our medieval ancestors. And that’s OK, says Sally Howard
t’s 3am and I’m sitting on my bed propped up against a Manhattan skyline of pillows, painting my toenails palm green. On recent nights, around this hour, I’ve also planned my husband’s birthday party and learnt how to make an authentic Cuban daiquiri. I call these stolen 60 minutes in the middle of the night my ‘anti-nap’: a peaceful shadowland between sleep and the day’s activities, when I catch up on the sort of quiet pursuits that are impossible when you’re trying to extract a toddler’s fingers from a plug socket.
As a working mother this is the closest
I get to me time – and it’s a joy.
The odd hours I keep are nothing new. In my 20s I’d fall asleep like a cat: on aeroplanes and trains and even – a lucky knack for a travel writer – the back of bumpy rickshaws. But wherever I lay my head, by 3am I’d be awake and pottering about for up to an hour before dozing off again until 6am.
I now know I’m not alone. Two thirds of women over the age of 40 wake at least once during the night, according to researchers at Harvard University, while a Sleep Council report found that a quarter of over 40s are natural ‘ biphasic sleepers’. Biphasics, as we are known, tend either towards the ‘siesta structure’ of a five- or six-hour night-time sleep, plus a 30- to 90-minute daytime nap, or – like me – into a rhythm of two- to fourhour sleeps bridged by a waking period.
This isn’t something we can control – it is related to your age and circadian chronotype, which decides if you’re a night owl or up with the larks (or, in fact, a dolphin, lion,
illustrations: giacomo bagnara bear or wolf – see the box overleaf to find out). Biphasics differ from insomniacs in that they do get enough sleep. In fact, A Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime, argues that biphasics or ‘medieval sleepers’ get closer to nature’s intention than the sleep we aspire to today (those precious eight uninterrupted hours).
‘For thousands of years until the industrial age, humans slept twice,’ Ekirch says. ‘A deeper first sleep from sunset until around 2am, followed by an interval of wakefulness, usually lasting an hour, then a lighter second sleep until around 6am, or later in the winter.’ The interval in the middle was used to visit neighbours, pray, or have sex, according to Ekirch. Only with the arrival of artificial lighting in the 1820s did sleep begin to compress into the pattern we now know.