Last week, in the first installment of my Mail on Sunday Life Plan, I tackled sleep – and how to beat insomnia. By now, I hope you’ll have put some of my advice into practice: over the past seven days you’ll have been sticking to a regular waking time, sorted out your bedroom and reset your body clock with daily, brisk morning walks. You’ll also be thinking more positively thanks to the Three Good Things exercise – recorded in your Sleep Tracker diary.
If you missed week one of the sleep plan, don’t worry – just visit mailonsunday.co.uk.
Now, in week two, I’m going to ask you to give something really radical a go. It is the method that helped me to conquer my own sleep demons.
In pre-industrial times, when it got dark, people would go to bed, sleep for about five hours, then get up. They would then stay awake for an hour or so – doing household chores, visiting friends or enjoying a bit of intimacy – before heading to bed again for ‘second sleep’
SHOULD YOU SLEEP LIKE A VICTORIAN?
Since I hit middle age, my own sleep has followed a pattern that might be familiar: I woke up in the middle of the night, and found it hard to get back to sleep. There are other types of insomnia: not being able to get to sleep, or waking up early in the morning. But the most common type is waking in the middle of the night, particularly as we get older, partly because our sleep is much lighter, but also because of things such as having a full bladder and feeling the need to go to the toilet.
And it used to be a serious problem for me: no matter how tired I was or what time I went to bed, I’d wake up at about 3am and lie in bed, for what felt like hours, trying to get back to sleep. Finally I’d drift off, only to be dragged awake again by the alarm clock.
Then, in 2016, while researching life in Victorian slums, I came across research by Roger Ekirch, a professor of history at Virginia Tech in the US. He claimed that my pattern – falling asleep, waking for a while, then falling asleep again – was how most people slept in pre-industrial times.
When it got dark, they would go to bed, sleep for about five hours, then get up. They would then stay awake for an hour or so – doing household chores, visiting friends or enjoying a bit of intimacy – before heading to bed again for ‘second sleep’.
Prof Ekirch believes that the pressures of the industrial age and the arrival of electric lights changed all that. Once people began having to clock on to work and artificial light meant they no longer went to bed soon after dark, sleeping continuously became the new normal.
As the practice of sleeping continuously became more widespread, the idea of a ‘first’ and ‘second’ sleep faded from public consciousness. Now it is seen as a sleep problem, something that needs to be ‘cured’.
Yet, according to Professor Ekirch, it was once an accepted way of life.
I get up, quietly, and have a glass of milk (containing tryptophan, a sleep-inducing amino acid), listen to music, meditate or read a really boring book
A GLASS OF MILK AND A BORING BOOK
Other recent research has suggested that this form of biphasic sleeping (sleeping in two chunks) may be more natural and each of the two sleeps has an important and distinct function, aiding the body’s repair processes, helping sort memories and also emotionally process the events of the day.
Buoyed by these discoveries, I decided that rather than fight my ‘old-fashioned’ sleeping patterns, I’d work with them. So these days I accept that I will probably wake at about 3am and plan accordingly. If I have a 7am start, then I aim to be in bed by 10.30pm. This gives me roughly a four-and-a-half-hour ‘first sleep’. When I do wake around 3am, rather than lie there fretting, I get up, quietly, and have a glass of milk (containing tryptophan, a sleep-inducing amino acid), listen to music, meditate or read a really boring book. I have a special collection of books I keep for this purpose. When I start to feel sleepy, which is normally after 40 minutes or so, I go back to bed for three or so hours of ‘second’ sleep.
Between my first and second sleep, I take care to avoid doing anything exciting or stimulating. I take particular care to avoid any screens. There is some evidence that the blue glow they emit mimics early-morning daylight – tricking the body into releasing waking hormones. Just really don’t do anything that will keep you awake. Your goal should be to bore your brain into going back to sleep.
Since I have, slightly reluctantly, accepted that I am unlikely to return to sleeping for a whole night without a break, I’ve felt more rested, less stressed and much less likely to nod off during the day. Try it for yourself, and let me know how you get on.
… AND WHILE YOU’RE AT IT, TRY EATING LIKE A VICTORIAN TOO
According to a study published by the Royal Society of Medicine, How The Mid-Victorians Worked, Ate And Died, a combination of lots of physical activity and a diet rich in fruits, whole grains, oily fish and vegetables meant that Victorians suffered from fewer chronic, degenerative diseases than we do today.
There were fibre-rich vegetables in the markets, including onions, cabbage, carrots and turnips. Fruits were apples in the winter and cherries in the summer. Fibre-rich nuts, such as chestnuts and hazelnuts, were bought roasted from street-corner sellers.
Meat was expensive so they ate plenty of omega-3-rich oily fish and seafood. Studies suggest consuming fish may help us get to sleep faster and sleep more deeply than those fed the same amount of calories in the form of meat.
To give you an idea, I’ve included a delicious sea bass recipe from The Clever Guts Diet Recipe Book, below.