What does it mean to have a good night’s sleep?

More and more evidence is emerging to suggest that there is a long list of benefits to sleeping well, from improving memory, weight loss, improved ability to learn, reduced risk of diabetes etc.

But what does it mean to have a good night’s sleep?

Ask most people what a good night’s sleep looks like and you are likely to get the following response: “7-9 hours of unbroken sleep”. The more sophisticated amongst us may add, “it changes as we age,” or they may even say “it depends upon the individual”. But on the whole most will respond to your question with “you should go to bed and sleep for one continuous stretch and wake up refreshed”.

That is in fact a myth that has pervaded our modern industrialised society. Way back before the introduction of the electric light bulb, it was known that human beings had a naturally different pattern. If you explore the broad literature prior to the industrial revolution you will find many references to first and second sleep. Indeed it’s only as we move in to the middle of the 19th Century that these references give way to talk of one continuous sleep period each night.

Numerous studies, most notably the work of a researcher called Thomas Wehr, have shown that the dominant pattern of sleep for most of the history of humanity is what is known as biphasic sleep.

Ad. Article continues below.

In the 1990s, Wehr conducted experiments where he exposed the participants to 14 hours of darkness per night. So why 14 hours of darkness? Sleep researchers have demonstrated that, in particular during the winter, the period of darkness we were exposed to, before the industrial revolution, was on the whole 14 hours. This indeed remains the pattern for some so-called under-developed nations.

For the participants in Wehr’s studies, after a period of adjustment they slipped in to a distinct pattern. It took them approximately two hours to fall asleep, this was then followed by two periods of sleep separated by about an hour or so of wakefulness. This is what biphasic sleep looks like.

But then you look at the result of Wehr’s experiments and say it takes me significantly less than two hours to fall asleep. The pattern that emerges for many in todays westernised societies is to fall asleep within 15 minutes. Most sleep researchers would now suggest this is a result of sleep deprivation and it’s not a positive sign.

What does all of this mean for us?

Currently it’s reported that more than 100 million people in the USA wake up for a period every single night. We have conditioned these people to think that this is abnormal sleep. There are even a diagnoses been created to help people feel like they are ill, it’s called middle of the night insomnia! So what happens is they wake up and think “I am having a bad night’s sleep”, they worry about this, and that worry disrupts their ability to begin their second sleep.

Ad. Article continues below.

The next night when they go to bed they think “I hope I don’t have a bad night like last night”, this worry disrupts their first sleep and so the pattern goes on. In the worst case they then end up using medication to try and sleep throughout the night.

If you doubt this, look at the worldwide explosion in the use of sleeping pills.

If you wake up in the middle of the night and you are awake for a hour or so, chances are you are perfectly normal. Don’t worry and don’t fight it. Relax and enjoy it. Don’t check your emails or your Facebook status but do accept that it’s perfectly OK. This is the way it’s meant to be and it will lead to you getting all those reported benefits of healthy sleep.


Do you sleep well? What do you consider a good sleep?