Your Ancestors Didn’t Sleep the Way You Do

by Dr. Edward Group DC, NP, DACBN, DCBCN, DABFM Published on , Last Updated on


Nobody questions the importance of getting enough sleep. At minimum, it’s essential for rejuvenating the mind and revitalizing the body. But, what is enough? And what does it look like? Many people find they wake during the night and wonder if they’re suffering from a sleep disorder or other health issue. While that could be totally possible, it’s also possible that sleep may not be an all-night thing. In fact, historical records, centuries-old literature, and ancient references to sleep are all revealing a whole new way we should be looking at how we slumber.

Segmented Sleep: More Normal Than You Realize

If waking up during the night is a frequent “problem” for you, you might wonder if you’re suffering from insomnia or sleep apnea. “Segmented sleep” is a seemingly irregular sleep pattern that may not be a disorder at all, but a natural biological response that we, in modern times, have forgotten.

English scholar Roger Ekirch cemented the idea that our ancestors used to naturally “practice” segmented sleep, using their middle-of-the-night waking hours to pray, meditate, or finish chores around the home. [1] Roger Ekirch found references to “first sleep” and “second sleep” in literature, legal documents, and even letters written before the Industrial Revolution. The in-between hour or hours were usually spent in prayer, and many find it to be one of the most relaxing periods. This may be because this middle period between first sleep and second sleep is around midnight where the brain produces prolactin, a hormone that supports a feeling of relaxation.

Before Reaching for That Sleeping Pill, Consider This

Our natural biorhythms are governed by exposure to light and darkness. Before the introduction of the lightbulb, almost everyone scheduled their day around the rising and setting of the sun. When the sun rose in the morning, so did humans, and when the sun hit the horizon in the evening, we more than likely went to sleep around the same time. Our brain produces serotonin in response to sunlight, and this neurotransmitter provides an energetic, wakeful feeling. [2] In contrast, when we’re exposed to darkness–meaning no artificial light whatsoever–our brain produces sleep-regulating melatonin. Computers, television screens, smartphones, tablets, and every other source of light in the evening hours is artificially extending our waking hours and interfering with our neurochemistry.

Because of this, it is possible that the practice of segmented sleep naturally fell away from public knowledge. We stay up longer, produce serotonin when we’re not supposed to, and eat less-than-ideal food. All of which could be the reason why we usually sleep throughout the night without waking and view this as normal. Even most medical professionals and sleep specialists have never heard of segmented sleep and aren’t trained to handle this natural occurrence. So if this is happening to you, do a little more research into segmented sleep and its possible benefits before you reach for a sleeping pill. You may be more in tune with your ancestral rhythms than most people.

Do you wake up in the middle of the night? What do you do during that time? We’d love to hear your thoughts and insight!

References (2)
  1. A. Roger Ekirch. Sleep We Have Lost: Pre-Industrial Slumber in the British Isles. Am Hist Rev. 2001;106(2):343-86.
  2. Simon N. Young. How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. J Psychiatry Neurosci. 2007 Nov; 32(6): 394-399.

†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. Global Healing Center does not dispense medical advice, prescribe, or diagnose illness. The views and nutritional advice expressed by Global Healing Center are not intended to be a substitute for conventional medical service. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.

  • crusader2010

    After about 6 hours of sleep I wake at about 1:00 am, walk the dog, plan the day, read my mail, and then after a while I go back to bed and sleep till dawn. Done this for about 10 years now. still get 8 hours plus* of sleep (*Depends on the time of year).

  • data22

    Dear help I work nights n sleep during the day..I sleep for about 2 hrs n then I’m wide awake ready to play takes how about 20 minutes to fall back asleep.. just for another 2 or 3 hrs than I’m up..this happens for the most you think I need more serotonin or is it because my body and mind know that it’s daytime..please help..thanku.

  • Cin Hus

    I agree with the article! We only get about 3 hours of deep sleep! When I was in my late teens and 20’s, I only slept 3-4 hours a day. I generally went to bed at 10:00 and up at 1 or 2. That was my quiet time and enjoyed waking up with a pot of coffee and a book or magazine between cleaning as much as I could without waking everyone up. Sometimes I would get my baking out of the way. Then when the sun came up, I was outside working all day in the summer. Never did take a nap! Every 10 years I seemed to gain an hour sleep and was up to 5 hours. Now after a severe back strain and herniated 3 discs, I might sleep anywhere from 6-12 hours a day depending on the pain. My son didn’t require much sleep either when he was born! I laid him down for naps until he was about a year old! If he had a nap, he would not go to sleep at 8:00, 9:00 or even 10:00 at times! Then he would get up at 1 or 2 with me so that ended the naps!!! LOL Then he slept till 4-5. Now I’m pushing 60 years old and sometimes I’ll still get up after 4 hours and don’t like naps unless it’s due to pain.

  • Dr. Rieux

    Read about segmented sleep years ago but only came across a reference to it in Don’t Quixote. The editor said the reference Cervantes was making was to the different stages of sleep, which a 16th century author wouldn’t know. But, I remembered that article I’d read in that history magazine and realized Cervantes was alluding to segmented sleep.

  • wwr

    As a soldier I would sleep 7 or 8 hours a night when not in the jungle or on combat ops and get up and run miles after 80+ pushups and situps. Now I can not sleep more that 2 or 3 hours at a time. I’m up taking a piss 3 to 5 times a night and if I can not go back to sleep I get up and read a book drinking a beer or two. Due to many injuries and so banged up after over 400 parachute jumps I hurt all the time and just wish I could sleep that 7 or 8 hours a night again.

  • The Bobster

    I wake up, take a wizz and go back to sleep.

  • Bruno Sibilla

    My sleep cycle is invariably 10.30 to about midnight and 1.30 until approx. 3.00 occasionally I doze off from about 4.00 to 5.00 but not often, been like that for decades, even after a few infrequent drinks. I´m 50 and I walk for about 2 hours a day. I feel fine but people think I am strange. A long time ago I tried Rohypnol and Rivotril but soon developed a tolerance and started gorging on the things plus the loss of memory is appaling not to mention the groggy feel the next day. Thanks for the article, I was starting to think there was something wrong with me.

  • Kitsy WooWoo

    So do I. And then again, a few hours later. It’s no biggie…my legs welcome the exercise and I always go back to sleep immediately

    I marvel at people (especially those of my generation) who can “sleep like a log” the whole night through.

  • I know how you feel – I have chronic pain, and pain wakes me up all the time. i rarely sleep over 3-4 hours a night, and I know that this isn’t good. My body doesn’t get to recover from the pain, and I’m not resting! With the kind of pain that I have, medicine will not seem to manage it – and I’ve tried every sleeping pill out there… I just take naps during the day – as I can. I’d kill for a good 7-8 hours of sleep…..

  • sherry silk

    It’s 3am here and I’m up because my creative brain kicked in. I went to bed at 10, slept like a log, and am ready to start the day. I live my passion which is helping people get healthier, so I have this inside joy that motivates me to not waste time doing things that are not important. If I feel my self loosing energy a 20 power nap is all it takes to get me back up and going again. I am 56 years young. I sleep better if I don’t have a full stomach to digest.

  • Sherry Silk

    We were not created to be up working at night so if possible a change of job is best. Sometimes unfortunately it is not always reality. So relay on God to help you with your concern. But until He answers don’t stress about it because if you can still play basketball, high five to you.

  • Sherry Silk

    I highly recommend researching the illness called canadida, an intestinal yeast overgrowth. You could have it and not even know it. It does effect sleep.

  • Kelly Pelletier

    I can’t sleep. Initially, I have anxiety about not being able to sleep. Once I’m asleep, I wake up at least 25 or 30 times a night, maybe more. Once it’s 430 or 5, I get up and get busy.
    I get exhausted during the day.

  • Kathy Mulholland-Isabell

    I go to bed at 6 pm, get up at around midnight. I cook, do chores, read, get on the computer (naturally!) and sometimes sit on the porch if the weather is nice. After 3-4 hours I go back to sleep for a couple of hours, then wake refreshed and very much rested. Then I walk and exercise and go on with a normal day like anyone else. I have been doing this consistently for the last 8 years, and as much as possible for the last 25 or so. Staying up later in the evening exhausts me, though I occasionally take part-time work in the evening that may last until 9:30 or so. I take a nap in the afternoon to prepare, but it really doesn’t help. It takes me days to recover. Unfortunately, people react badly to my sleep requirements, and are frequently unpleasant when I decline evening activities or do not answer my phone. I fell into this schedule quite unintentionally, it was what my body liked and I simply followed. It took place long before I read somewhere that this “broken” schedule was regarded by some as a “paleo” type pattern of sleep and was quite natural.

  • LawrenceFrohley

    I get up in the middle of the night, do 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, read a chapter of a novel, and then I go to bed better than you do, too.

  • Gary

    for Pain Take a Liquid Vitamin D3 10,000 units per day, this will help a LOT!! it got rid of my pain, also take L-Glutamine Powder this will help you recover Fast and provide energy during the day, also for sleep take Magnesium Malate, those items listed above are Vital to your body as they are vitamins that are/need to be in large quantities in the body but EVERYONE is deficient to the pint of being ill because they are way To Low.

  • piria martin

    yeah it takes me hours to go to sleep anything will wake me up and thats it for the rest of the night or morning. i twist and turn 360 degrees nightly. got all the different pillows tried them all useless. so unable to sleep at all mabe 3 hours at the moste

  • trid2bnrml

    Wake up, feel guilty and wash the dishes I left in the sink to0 “soak.”

  • trid2bnrml

    I was like that when I was on high blood pressure medications (metoprolol and clonidine). After I got an iodine supplement, my thyroid levels returned to normal and my BP went down. My BP returned to normal after I insisted on detoxing off the HBP meds. I had to threaten my PCP to get her to tell me how to safely get off those meds. BEST DECISION OF MY LIFE!

    My bladder incontinence went away, as did my venous stasis in my legs. It was so bad, that I had draining sores that wouldn’t heal and my ankles were purple.

    About a month after getting off the HBP meds, I started getting 4-5 hrs sleep at a time, which was a lot for me then. Stomach issues disappeared too. I lost 30 pounds.

    I’m working on naturally lowering cholesterol and blood sugar levels now.

    My Dr. was stunned, then I reminded her that SHE had no role in these improvements, that I did it against her advice! After I got off all of the pills, she started claiming I was pre-diabetic, after my A1c went up .2 after the holiday season face-stuffing festivals….it returned to normal a couple of months later.

    I had had enough of this doctor. I wanted to live.

    I fired that pharmaceuticals dispenser, by changing to a new medical office altogether. Had I listened to her, they would’ve burned my thyroid out and put me on thyroid and HBP pills for the rest of my life, and probably had by feet amputated by now.

    Do your own research and QUESTION EVERYTHING!

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