“The brain starts to eat itself after chronic sleep deprivation”
I saw an article with this title pop up on my facebook feed today. I refused to even click on it for a quick squiz as I’m so done with this kind of triggering BS. Imagine how young parents with a newborn keeping them up half the night are going to feel reading this? I’m not a mum but pretty much all of my friends have multiple children and so far I don’t think anyone’s brain has completely melted yet.
I used to be the sort of person who was anal about getting 8 hours+ sleep. I was super cranky if I had to get up an hour earlier than my regular routine and I was deeply concerned for my friends with newborns who didn’t sleep well!! I assumed they must have a simply miserable existence and thanked my lucky stars I didn’t have kids.
We’ve all been taught that a good night’s sleep is essential and there are thousands upon thousands of studies about the terrible effects of sleep deprivation.
It wasn’t until I had a bout of insomnia a few years back that I decided to challenge this way of thinking. I had moved to a hilly town an hour out of Melbourne and had underestimated how cold winters got out there. My place was quaint but drafty and no matter what I did and how many heaters I used it was effin freezing at night. I would wake up for hours on end with a cool draft blowing over my face and it drove me mental.
After a few weeks of this I was completely beside myself from stress and what I thought were the effects of sleep deprivation. I called a friend who also happened to be a psychotherapist and she suggested that I let go of my relationship with sleep. She said that perhaps worrying about not getting sleep was more of an issue than the lack of sleep. What if living in the country with all that fresh air meant you only needed 4 or 5 hours? she suggested. What if you got up at 4am and then had a nap in the afternoons?
These were all practical suggestions but letting go of this attachment to having a solid 8 hours seemed unthinkable to me. I’d always been told sleep was essential and deprivation dangerous.. So instead I moved from that place to my parents and started looking for a new house closer into Melbourne.
When I moved to my new place I was super anxious about the possibility of being cold at night again. My parents place had ducted heating so for a few months I’d lived in that ideal cosy comfort. I was worried that the new place might be drafty like my country pad. The previous experience of insomnia felt like a trauma in my psyche and so I was hyper vigilant about the new place as I approached the moving in date.
I knew that worrying about it had the potential of generating insomnia in of itself and I didn’t want to create a phobia situation. So I decided I need to tackle the problem head on.
What’s it going to take to get over this fear of not sleeping and being cold?
I posed this question to the universe and to myself, my higher self or the sanest part of me I could access. I let the question dance around my subconscious until I started getting ideas.
First I approached the situation on a practical level. I got prepared; I bought an excellent thermosat heater, thick and heavy curtains and DIY window insulation for winter. Then I thought about sleep and how much I really believed I needed. I thought about my friends with kids, their endless broken sleeps and crack-of-dawn starts and wondered … is there some inherent human adaptation to the broken sleep factor? I mean after all, people have been having crying babies for the history of time… would a brain really be designed to eat itself after waking up at 4am to breast feed too many times?
I googled something like “broken sleep, breast feeding, history of sleep” and that’s when I leaned about biphasic and polyphasic sleep.
“Biphasic sleep is the practice of sleeping during two periods over 24 hours, while polyphasic sleep refers to sleeping multiple times – usually more than two. Each of these is in contrast to monophasic sleep, which is one period of sleep over 24 hours.” wiki
It turns out our ancestors didn’t sleep like us! Many slept in two or three broken segments. Whilst our great grandparents and great great grandparents might have slept in 8 hour blocks if you look into history prior to the 1800s the documentation on sleep more commonly describes people sleeping in smaller blocks. For example, sleeping for three to four hours, wakefulness of two to three hours, then sleep again until morning.
The work of Historian Professor Roger Ekirch from Virginia State University, USA, has revealed some fascinating insights into the history of sleeping patterns and poses the question are we really deprived?
“The compressed, consolidated pattern of sleep is actually less than two centuries old. Previously most families experienced a broken pattern of sleep, with ‘first sleep’ from 9pm until midnight, an hour or so awake followed by a ‘second sleep’. This biphasic pattern was rarely viewed in a negative way. The evolution into our modern consolidated sleep pattern was something that occurred over the 19th century, a time of dramatic change with reform movements and the increasing prevalence of artificial illumination.
– April Cashin-Garbutt, Feb. 8, 2017, “A Royal Society of Medicine Meeting Review,” News-Medical Net
Ekirch suggests that people who suffer from the middle of the night insomnia may actually be reverting to this older pattern of sleep and they should be relieved of anxiety about their insomnia.. it might be a throwback to ancestral rhythms.
With such insights gaining recognition and momentum we now have polyphasic and biophasic sleep clubs, societies and advocates experimenting with this old way of sleeping and looking at ways of benefiting from these alternative cycles.
The Polyphasic Society is once such group offering sleep courses, information and e-books on exploring a more segmented sleep cycle. Some advocates claim biophasic or polyphasic sleep requires less over all sleep hours and utilize this method to get creative projects done in the middle of the night. They explore the science, REM sleep and exactly what you need within the broken hours to get the maximum sleep value possible.
Once I read all of this I became far less worried about potential insomnia. It decided to let go and let nature do it’s thing. If I couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t meant to I decided. I would, as my friend suggested, let go of my relationship to sleep and the 8 hour block.
Guess what happened when I moved into the new place?
I slept pretty darn well!!
The first few night I was a bit nervous and woke up a few times. It was cold but not crazy drafty cold thank God. The heater on it’s steady low setting did it’s thing. Every time I woke up I reminded myself I had a new understanding of sleep and that if I woke up for a few hours who cares. I could read or write lyrics like the polyphasic dudes. It was the weekend so I could nap in the afternoon if needed or nap on the train to work or from work. etc etc. I don’t think I remained awake for more than 10 mins at a time.
So, in case you haven’t guessed, the moral of this story is don’t worry about insomnia. Let your self fall into whatever rhythm you’re supposed to. Don’t fight it.
If you like this blog please consider checking out Dr Kelly Brogan’s Vital Mind Reset course. I’m an affiliate. Thanks a million