Is It Natural to Sleep 8 Hours a Night?

We often hear about the importance of getting 8 solid hours of sleep per night. But is this really ideal? There’s growing evidence that sleeping for one, long uninterrupted block of time is unnatural.

What is a normal sleep pattern?

According to historians, our modern eight-hour sleep routine is unheard of in human history. Studies have found that humans naturally have a “biphasic” sleep cycle, where we sleep for two 4-hour blocks of time, separated by an hour or more of wakefulness.

Roger Ekirch is a sleep historian at Virginia Tech University and the author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. He found that references to “first sleep” and “second sleep” were very common in literature and other documents from pre-Industrial Europe. In between the two sleeps, people were often active and would talk to family, do chores or reflect on their dreams.

Our sleep patterns seemed to become monophasic during the industrial revolution as artificial lights and more regimented schedules became widespread.

The monophasic cycle modern human society has adopted is also non-existent in the animal world. A study from the Journal of Sleep found that the majority of animals have polyphasic sleep cycles, where they have numerous sleep and wake cycles in one day.

In the 1990s, the sleep scientist Thomas Wehr found that people will sleep biphasically when they’re exposed to natural patterns of light and dark, as Ekirch found in historical records.

Some traditional cultures in the world still sleep in biphasic cycles. For instance, Ekirch noted that the Tiv people of central Nigeria even use the same terms of “first sleep” and “second sleep” as the Europeans did centuries ago.

Why would you want a biphasic sleep cycle?

Although the concept may seem strange at first, a biphasic sleep cycle can have many benefits.

Over one-third of American adults regularly wake up in the middle of the night. Instead of realizing this is a natural process, many people label this as insomnia and take sleeping pills or other measures to “fix the problem”. It can easily create a war with sleep.

Simply being aware that this is a natural rhythm can help improve sleep. J. Todd Arnedt, a sleep researcher at the University of Michigan, asks his patients with insomnia to stop seeing their sleep as a problem. He finds that when they can let go of the anxiety around waking in the night, they experience less distress and can actually fall back asleep again more easily.

Another benefit of a biphasic sleep cycle is that you can remember your dreams more effectively. The waking period in between each sleep phase was used by many cultures as a time for quiet reflection and dream examination. Even if your dreams make no sense, research suggests that dreams are a way for your subconscious mind to deal with complex emotions. Recalling dreams has been proven to reduce depression and lead to greater emotional balance compared to those who are not able to recall their dreams.

Biphasic sleep is also more flexible than a rigid 8 hour monophasic sleep session. Instead of having to be tied to the clock, you can experiment with breaking up your sleeping cycle and having periods of productivity in between your sleep times.

How can you try out a biphasic sleep routine?

A few different variations on biphasic sleep cycles have been developed. It really comes down to your personal preference and your schedule.

Try these steps to start out with a natural cycle:

  • Choose your morning wakeup time.
  • Set your bedtime for at least 9 hours before. This gives you enough time to have two 4-hour sleeps and an hour break in between. If you want a longer break, you’ll need to get to bed earlier.
  • Determine how you want to spend your break time, preferably on low-impact activities. It’s best to avoid bright lights during your break in order to maintain a more natural rhythm.

You can experiment with this basic cycle and try different lengths of time for each sleep period. One approach is to have a longer “core” sleep time with a scheduled nap later in the day. You can start with periods like:

  • 7 hours of core sleep with a 20 minute nap
  • 6 hours of core sleep with a 90 minute nap

Some people have also attempted to shorten the sleep periods and lengthen the break in order to be more productive. No studies have been done on how this affects our bodies, but only you can determine how you respond to a new routine.

Steve Pavlina, a personal development blogger, started a biphasic routine that worked well for him with a 4.5 hour core sleep and a 90 minute nap 8-10 hours after waking up.

Others have experimented with having two 3-hour periods of sleep separated by 6 hours of productive time.

These modern methods can gives you the flexibility to work your sleep times around whether or not you’re a morning or night person as well as your individual work and family schedules.

Regardless of how you approach it, biphasic sleep is natural part of our biology that was lost in our modern age. It’s a habit well worth reawakening.

Related
Surprising Facts About How Animals Sleep

Morning Person or Night Owl? 6 Benefits of Both

Shining a Light on Light Pollution

 

 

 

206 comments

Sonia M

Good article thanks for sharing

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Ruth S
Ruth S3 months ago

Thanks.

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RICKY S
RICKY SLOAN3 months ago

THANKS

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Tanya W
Tanya W3 months ago

Thank you for sharing this

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Tanya W
Tanya W3 months ago

I am awake alot due to pain from osteoarthritis, but have never slept well

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Lorie Groetzinger

This article has opened (and closed) my eyes! As an older adult, my sleep patterns have been changing but I've noticed I've been waking up around 2:00 AM, staying awake for an hour or two then falling back asleep. When I get up in the AM, I feel rested. Now I have to figure a different way to approach this mid night waking time. Do I read, journal, talk to my cat? Thanx so much for this new perspective! I don't feel so crazy now.

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Alexander Hay-Whitton
Alexander Hay-Whittonabout a year ago

(In a feline coffee bar) Cat, to friend: You know, Tibbles, if I don't get my twenty-three and a half hours, I'm a wreck all day!

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Alexander Hay-Whitton
Alexander Hay-Whittonabout a year ago

Interesting one, this time.

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Jeanne Rogers
Jeanne Rabout a year ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Fi T.
Past Member 1 years ago

Individual difference

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