The Wonders of First and Second Sleep

I’ve always loved the very early morning hours, when most of the world is in dreamland and there are only the occasional, faint sounds of night owls, both owlish and human. One of my favorite memories of college is walking the Indiana University campus at three or four o’clock in the morning; it felt like visiting an entirely different dimension where there was indeed a university but no other students.

It never occurred to me back then that my circadian rhythm might be different from most of my peers. I just liked to walk around in the early morning.

Eventually, alas, I left college for the real world and spent about thirty years working a variety of eight-to-five jobs. No options for unusual circadian rhythms, thank you very much. Frequent insomnia, however.

Looking back on it now, and taking into account current sleep research, I think the “insomnia” was just my body wanting a different schedule. A more natural schedule? I don’t know. There are those who say it is.

But, first things first: It was in my fifties, as I settled into a management position at a large corporation, that I began to establish for the first time a really different sleep schedule. You wouldn’t think employment like that would permit such flexibility but here is where I was so lucky: My office was in Oregon and my primary interaction was with corporate headquarters in Kansas City—two hours ahead of our local time.

Their eight-to-five day was my six-to-three day.

There was of course no expectation that I’d be in my Oregon office at six in the morning; no one else in my position had ever done that on a consistent basis. But I quickly found that I thrived on getting up at four, meditating, having breakfast, writing for a while, and then arriving at the office before six. (I also enjoyed getting the hell out of there at three in the afternoon, but that’s another story.)

The final refinement in my sleep habits began developing soon after I retired. For one thing, I started waking up even earlier—between three-thirty and four every morning. Then I got into the habit of dozing off in my recliner around eight or nine in the evening. I’d wake up after three hours or so and putter for a few minutes, then properly go to bed for another three or four hours.

This has been my firm, daily routine for years now. Three or so hours in the recliner. Up and about. Three or so hours in bed. Even the cats have fallen in line: Stella (preferring the recliner) snoozes on top of me during “first sleep” and Maxine (preferring the bed) on top of me during “second sleep.”

And, yes, those are the traditional labels—which I discovered only in this past year when I began to see sleep research articles positing that in fact it was “unnatural” to slumber eight hours straight through and that throughout most of human history people had been in habit of doing exactly what I found myself doing now.

The theory, not universally accepted by the sleep research community as yet, is that historical human sleep habits have in modern times become distorted both by artificial light and, of course, our eight-to-five daytime routines. What many people still view as insomnia is simply the natural inclination to wake up for a while in the middle of the night.

Sleep researchers are even claiming that “segmented sleep” can be a great stress reducer and health-enhancer.

So, have I unwittingly reverted to the natural circadian rhythm of my peasant ancestors? I don’t know.

But I do relish my two sleeps every night.

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