Try Sleeping Like a Victorian to Quell Insomnia

CC BY 2.0. State Library of South Australia/Flickr

Or, in which two periods of slumber, hearkening back to the days before electricity and industrialization, could hasten sleep and lead to feelings of restfulness.

When our lifestyle habits don’t seem to be working, there is a recent tendency to assume the practices of other times and cultures. We are urged to hygge like the Danes and eat like French women and cook like cavemen, to name just a few. Could sleeping like a Victorian be the next trend in cultural identity swaps that promise wellness?

Dr. Michael Mosley, British science journalist and health author, explains that in pre-industrial times, people went to sleep when it got dark (because what else is one supposed to do without prime time television?). They’d sleep five hours or so, then wake up in the middle of the night and begin “doing household chores, visiting friends or enjoying a bit of intimacy,” before hitting the sack again for their “second sleep.” Known as biphasic sleeping, this way of slumber was the norm, say researchers, before the advent of electric lights and an early timeclock. It was the sleep pattern for centuries and started to change in the late 17th century; by the 1920s the concept of first and second had pretty much completely disappeared.

With artificial light and industrialization, continuous sleep became the standard; so here we are. Now, raise your hand if you wake up in the middle of the night and toss and turn and stress and fret, only to fall asleep not long before the alarm goes off.

I have always not-so-fondly referred to this as “crazy brain,” the magical hours in the still of the night when the tiniest of things grow in my mind to the most dramatic of proportions. (More technically, it's apparently called "sleep maintenance insomnia.") And while I have heard of people getting up and reading or otherwise not fighting the midnight sleep-blocking demons, I always found that idea unsettling. Instead, I have devised complicated math and counting schemes that force my imagination to calm down and bore me back to sleep. And it often takes several hours. But what if there is something to the idea of embracing the wakefulness instead? To remove the stressful part might be the clue to falling back to sleep much sooner.

Mosley says he came across the idea of biphasic sleep while researching Victorians, and opted to try it.

I decided that rather than fight my ‘old-fashioned’ sleeping patterns, I’d work with them. So these days I accept that I will probably wake at about 3am and plan accordingly. If I have a 7am start, then I aim to be in bed by 10.30pm. This gives me roughly a four-and-a-half-hour ‘first sleep’. When I do wake around 3am, rather than lie there fretting, I get up, quietly, and have a glass of milk (containing tryptophan, a sleep-inducing amino acid), listen to music, meditate or read a really boring book ... When I start to feel sleepy, which is normally after 40 minutes or so, I go back to bed for three or so hours of ‘second’ sleep.

"Since I have, slightly reluctantly, accepted that I am unlikely to return to sleeping for a whole night without a break," he adds, "I’ve felt more rested, less stressed and much less likely to nod off during the day."

Mosley describes research suggesting that biphasic sleeping is more natural and “each of the two sleeps has an important and distinct function, aiding the body’s repair processes, helping sort memories and also emotionally process the events of the day.”

During the midnight wake-break, Mosley recommends not engaging in anything too stimulating, and to steer clear of screens. It may be a little confusing to eat like a French woman and sleep like a Victorian – and I certainly hope that sleeping like a Victorian doesn’t lead to having the lifespan of a Victorian – but maybe it’s worth a go? Now I just need a chaste white gown and lace-trimmed nightcap and I'll be all set.