Scientists have conducted a number of studies that suggest the traditional eight hour sleep pattern that humans have grown used to is both unnatural and unhealthy.
In 1992, a team of psychiatrists headed by Thomas Wehr performed an experiment where subjects were plunged into darkness for 14-hours every day for one month.
By the fourth week, each subject had settled into a distinct sleeping pattern in which they slept for 4 hours, and then woke for 1-3 hours, and then slept for a another 4 hours.
In another study Wehr also found that while awake for this 1-3 hour period the brains of participants produced a higher level of prolactin, which is a hormone that reduces stress and relaxes the body after an orgasm.
In 2001 historian Roger Ekirch published a paper which showed mounting historical evidence that it was common practice that we would sleep in a similar pattern to the findings of Wehr.
In his book- “At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past” Ekirch provides more than 500 references taken from diaries, medical books, literature and court records. And has cross cultural references from the ancient greeks to accounts taken from modern tribes in Nigeria.
“It’s not just the number of references – it is the way they refer to it, as if it was common knowledge,” Ekirch says.
Ekirch discovered that some time during the late 17th Century references to this type of sleep pattern started to disappear and by the 1920s the idea had been entirely removed society.
It is though this was in part caused by the rise of unnatural lighting, the increased consumption of coffee and night time becoming fashionable for spending time out socialising.
“People were becoming increasingly time-conscious and sensitive to efficiency, certainly before the 19th Century,” says Roger Ekirch. “But the industrial revolution intensified that attitude by leaps and bounds.”
This attitude was displayed in a medical journal from 1829 in which doctors encourage parents to not allow their children to sleep in the first and second sleep cycle.
“If no disease or accident there intervene, they will need no further repose than that obtained in their first sleep, which custom will have caused to terminate by itself just at the usual hour.
“And then, if they turn upon their ear to take a second nap, they will be taught to look upon it as an intemperance not at all redounding to their credit.”
It could be argued that our standard 8 hour sleep cycle (although a lot less in many cases) is in part contributing to the poor health and mental health situation we are currently facing. According to harvard health publications Chronic sleep problems affect 50% to 80% of patients in a typical psychiatric practice. With the most common problems stemming from a lack of sleep being anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
An article from Harvard Healthy Sleep team revealed that bad sleeping patterns can also contribute to long-term physical health problems, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
Also sleep insufficiency has been linked to motor vehicle crashes, industrial disasters, and medical and other occupational errors.