Why You Keep Waking Up at 4 A.M.
Tell me if this sounds familiar.
For the third time in a week, you wake up with a start. When you anxiously check the time, the number on the clock makes you want to punt it across the room.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” you murmur. “Four o’clock again??”
At some point, most of us go through a period of annoyingly consistent wake-up calls around 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. If you’re like me, the first thing you did was petition your doctor for some vitamin A(mbien.) Or maybe you tried to cut out caffeine. Whatever your method — you’re working against hundreds of years of practice.
Historian Roger Ekirch published a book in 2011 that listed approximately 500 written accounts from centuries past in which people referred to “first sleep” and “second sleep.” Diaries, medical journals, prayer books — they were filled with people discussing a sleep pattern that looked very different from what we know today.
People would sleep for the first part of the night, wake up in the early morning for a couple of hours, and then fall back asleep until it was time to start the day in earnest. Ekirch’s work has been backed up by scientists that concede our bodies naturally revert to this pattern when deprived of modern external stimuli (artificial light sources, for instance.)
This practice is called segmented sleeping, and it’s hypothesized that it stretches back much farther than the written accounts we can access. In fact, it was probably the norm for most of our lucky ancestors.
During the space between first sleep and second sleep, people would eat or have sex; write or visit neighbors. It was a time of increased creativity, thoughtfulness and closeness.
The trouble with segmented sleep is that it requires a window of about twelve hours, a luxury erased by the the industrial revolution and its stupid efficiency-minded living and eight-hour workdays.(But thanks for the modern conveniences, or whatever.)
When I tell people about “first sleep” and “second sleep” they look at me like I’m trying to pull one over on them, because segmented sleeping has completely faded from society’s memory. This is denim-jumpsuit-levels of unfortunate, because it causes incredible (and completely unnecessary) anxiety for those in the 4 a.m. club and, perhaps most intriguingly, robs people of prime thinking time.
When we wake up in the middle of the night, our first instinct is to panic. Not only do we preemptively agonize over the day’s lost productivity, we tend to consider all life events — marriage, work, frienships, family — in ways that we typically don’t during the day. You know the saying, “Everything’s darkest before dawn”? People in the 4 a.m. club know all too well what this means.
There’s a reason that your brain seems to be exploring avenues, clean or dangerous, in the early morning hours.
When we fall asleep, we enjoy that fast actin’ prolactin, a hormonal secretion that sends you into dreamy, sleepy, peaceful and even hallucinatory state. It’s also released when we wake up and when we remain in a restful waking state — as our ancestors used to do between first and second sleep.
This means that when you wake up in the middle of the night, it can be a rich period when your brain is tuned to think outside the box and imagine new possibilities. Your hormones enable you to take the creativity of dreams and combine them with the consciousness of a waking brain. Conversely, your brain can use its dream-like state to convince you that the spot on your back is undoubtedly melanoma.
It’s like tripping on drugs (I’ve heard, from friends of mine… really more acquaintances.) When you awake in the wee hours and are in a good place to lean into it, you can flex your imaginative muscles like perhaps no other time during the day. If you take it to a bad place, watch out sucker.
If you’re not a creative, you still need to keep segmented sleep close to your heart and brain the next time you’re robbed of those precious snoozing hours. Chances are, you’ve had a friend or doctor tell you that you should get out of bed and go into another room, have a snack or meditate. You might have thought, “That certainly seems counterproductive! I’m doing wakeful things!” But the body does what the body wants, and chances are it’s trying to follow the biological urge expend some energy before second sleep.
I’m not telling you that sitting in the kitchen for a bit will act as a panacea to your sleeping woes, but I can assure you that you are much more likely to fall back asleep if you treat this time as it has been for hundreds of years. Lying in bed in a state of frenetic frustration certainly won’t do the trick.
Sleep has always been a mystery, even to modern-day scientists. Our internal clocks and sleeping/waking mechanisms seem to be on their own track, unconcerned with the parameters set forth by modern life.
Fortunately, at least for the purposes of sleep, about one-third of the workforce is now contract labor. Many more of us have flexible schedules or work-at-home agreements. These new ways of working have allowed us to fall into rhythms that are more natural to each of our peculiar bodies and brains, as society begins to think and work outside the nine-t0-five paradigm.
Perhaps, in the grandest irony, our efficiency-geared society will actually circle back to the resting patterns that maximize our potential — sleeping and getting up when our bodies tell us to.
Until then, I’d love to hear about people who sleep successfully in segments or who have beaten insomnia.