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

The Sunday Telegraph - Stella - - #ONEDAY -

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.

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