It’s eight thirty and I just woke up. Eight thirty p.m. I don’t do night shifts and I’m not hungover or sick. This is pretty normal for me.
In primary school, each week they sat us down for circle time and passed a little bear around to allow each child to answer a question. One day they asked us our bedtimes and whether we were happy with them.
Around the circle the other kids holding the bear answered like this: ‘Five Thirty… I want it to be later!’, ‘Six…. It’s okay I guess’, ‘Half past six…’ ,’Six…’ By the time the scruffy teddy had got around to me, excited for my turn I boldly declared ‘Ten!’ Noticing the utter horror on the faces of my teacher and her assistant I hurriedly thrust the bear onto to the girl to my left. It was then that I began to realise my sleeping habits weren’t normal.
Discovering I was a biphasic sleeper (when I eventually came across the term online many years later) was such a relief. Apparently some of us have circadian rhythms that are stronger than others. Back in the gold ol’ days of cavemen it is thought that as the sun set our melatonin increased and we fell asleep soon after sunset, slept for a few hours then awoke in the middle of the night, taking a second slumber only when the early hours came around. So we experienced two segments of wakefulness within a twenty four hour period and two sleeps, usually each around four hours in length. Although modern lifestyles are generally at odds with this pattern some of us still have bodies that seem to remember the slumber style of our ancestors and resist the modern western model of ‘8 hours a night’. Indeed, a study by Thomas Wehr, a sleep scientist, discovered that most people, when subjected to natural patterns of night and day without artificial lighting will revert to sleeping biphasically. In fact, prior to the industrial revolution, with the introduction of electric light, segmented sleep was still the norm. So actually, I may be doing it right.
Ever since I can remember I have been an ardent napper, able to fall asleep at any time except for when I’m actually meant to. I can go through a normal day like everyone else but it just doesn’t feel right and I notice my eyelids drooping and my concentration waning unless I’m very busy and stimulated. I was always told to go to bed before eleven and wake up at eight was the only normal pattern – the only convenient one for school at least. So this is what I did for years, wondering why my energy levels could never match the other children’s and why I was so frequently tired. In the holidays and on weekends I treated myself to a nap most days and although I awoke refreshed I also felt guilty, knowing this felt far more natural than what was supposed to be good for me. I’ve actually found I need more sleep as I get older – those late nights at the age of six or seven didn’t impact my school work at all but now I am truly a zombified mess without a good kip.
So I continued to obey ‘the sleeping law’ of morning rising, night resting for many years until I hit a wall (metaphorical of course, no drowsy driving here!) In my late teens I found myself deeply depressed and suffering from physical exhaustion. I would come home each day and immediately collapse on the sofa, bags strewn across the floor, coat still on. I woke up before seven (usually) and in a half crazed state rushed my homework for the next day before I tucked myself in bed for eleven once more and hoped a few days like this would replenish my energy so I could catch up with all the work I missed. It didn’t. As my depression worsened I found I needed to sleep for large portions of the day too… Physically dragging myself out of bed was impossible and I was lucky to spend the same amount of time awake each day that the average person slept for. The more I fought my body the worse it became. My teachers were losing patience with my poor attendance and lack of functioning and my life consisted of swimming through pages I could barely recognise as coherent sentences before I slipped into another comatose state, head on book. Something had to change. Antidepressants helped a little as did regular exercise and changing my diet but I still didn’t feel right. So I tried a different approach.
Instead of propping my eyes open with matchsticks and fighting the malaise I leapt into bed whenever I felt the wave of exhaustion hit. I slept soundly for as long as I desired and when I awoke I stayed awake, usually ’til the early hours when I felt the gentle call of sleepiness. The results were instant – in the waking time between my two evening sleeps (usually four hours each) I was so much more productive than during any part of the day beforehand. I had tonnes of energy and concentration and I felt alive in a way I never did on a standard eight hours. I listened to my body and it responded! Biphasic sleep was definitely the way forward! Now I can function on a more socially acceptable 8 hours of monophasic sleep, but given the option, two naps is always better for my optimal mental and physical health.
So what do you do if you suffer from midday drowsiness or you are one of those people who frequently finds yourself awakening during the night and can’t seem to tolerate or maintain the standard eight-hour snooze? If you are able to fit it into your life, I strongly recommend listening to your body clock and allowing yourself to sleep when you feel dozy. I find this particularly helpful in winter when we are more likely to suffer from SAD/ be in ‘hibernation mode’. However, I appreciate in today’s busy world that may not be possible with your schedule. But if you concentration, work or relationships are seriously affected by your lack of energy it’s an option to consider.
If segmented sleep is so natural, then why aren’t more of us doing it? Of course in some countries, an afternoon Siesta is an ingrained cultural norm such as in Spain and parts of South America and the Middle East, although more recently these traditions are evaporating in favour of corporate interests – going home to nap in the middle of the day and working in two blocks could be very inconvenient! Some have suggested installing special rooms for employees to take naps may increase productivity – an idea which is rapidly catching on in Japan. Many firms allow employees to rest for short periods during the day which could be particularly useful for those working in maths and technology where attention to detail is essential! Other western countries are following much more hesitantly behind Japan, but should they perhaps be taking leaves from Japan’s book? Napping has been found to have a myriad of benefits including decreasing stress, improving memory and learning and even lowering blood pressure! Perhaps it’s time our employees started working with our physiology instead of requiring us to work against it?
Until then, if you work a strictly nine-to-five no-naps job, you may have to rely on copious amounts of caffeine and sheer willpower to get you through your day… Still, if any of you decide to host a protest I reckon I have a slogan idea to paint on your pillows before you blockade the lobby with duvets: Marina And The Diamond’s ‘I Am Not A Robot’ will do quite nicely, no? Just give me a call and I’ll do the coffee rounds. Because there’s one thing naps aren’t so useful for: a sleeping protester is never a good protestor.