What Is Segmented Sleep and Is It Healthy?

Segmented sleep was popular with our ancestors, but it may not be healthy for most people today. Find out just how long you should be staying asleep.

Is worry about lack of sleep keeping you up at night? For new parents, shift workers, or people just too busy to get their 8 hours, segmented sleep is a painful reality. Research shows that sleeping in shifts was a common practice by our ancestors. But interrupting your sleep/wake cycle may not be practical or healthy.

What Is Segmented Sleep?

Segmented sleep is a sleep pattern in which your night sleep is divided into two separate chunks, with a period of wakefulness in between. Before advances in artificial lighting, segmented sleep was a normal sleep pattern for many people.

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Virginia Tech historian Roger Ekirch, who spent 16 years researching segmented sleep, found considerable evidence showing that earlier generations had a first sleep just after dusk, followed by an hour or two of being awake, time often spent in a relaxed state of prayer or meditation. Then it was back to bed for a second sleep that lasted until morning.

Is Segmented Sleep Healthy Sleep?

Ekirch’s research may suggest that waking up in the middle of the night is natural and even good for you. But doctors don’t necessarily agree. “Segmented sleep may have been natural for our ancestors,” says Timothy A. Connolly, MD, a sleep specialist at the Center of Sleep Medicine at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Houston, “but today, sleeping in shorter sessions is difficult, impractical, and can be destructive.”

Most people today don’t have the time to sleep in two separate segments and would probably end up not getting the sleep they need. And one short sleep segment isn’t the answer. “Four to five hours of sleep is not enough,” says Connolly. “It may not impact you immediately, but if you continue this pattern, your health will suffer.” Disrupting your sleep/wake cycle can put every cell, tissue, and organ in your body at risk and lead to serious medical problems such as obesity, stroke, heart disease, and mood disorders.

Healthy Sleep: What It Means for You

Healthy sleep is different for every individual, but Connolly says that most adults need about 8 hours of sleep a night. “Studies show adults who consistently sleep 7 to 8 hours every night live longest,” he says. Some people require just 6 hours and others may need 10, but we all need good quality sleep, and that means staying asleep for a set chunk of time. “Sleep is essential to overall body health,” he adds. Deep sleep repairs and renews your body. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep recharges your brain.

But what if your job or a newborn in the family forces you to sleep in segments — how do you get the sleep you need? “New parents should split up nighttime duties and try to sleep when their baby does,” Connolly suggests. “Shift workers should stick to a consistent sleep schedule, even on weekends. Everybody should make time for sleep – it’s a health priority.”

Waking at Night

If you wake up in the middle of the night, don’t panic. Connolly says avoid looking at the clock and try to go back for a second sleep. If you can’t fall back asleep, do something relaxing, like reading a book or listening to music. Stay away from the computer and the TV — both produce too much artificial light and can overstimulate your brain.

Improving Sleep Hygiene

Many people have bad sleep habits that make getting to sleep and staying asleep difficult. Connolly tells his patients to practice good sleep hygiene. “Treat yourself like a 3-year-old,” he says. “Set a bedtime schedule and stick to it. Don’t drink alcohol or caffeine or eat heavily close to bedtime. Exercise early in the day. Turn off the computer when the sun goes down to avoid the strong artificial light. Keep your bedroom dark, cool, and free of electronic noise and light.”

Paying Back Sleep Debt

“Every time you sacrifice on sleep, you add to your sleep debt,” says Connolly. “Make it up right away.” So, if you lose 2 hours of sleep on Sunday night, try to get 2 extra hours on Monday night. Just like any debt, a sleep debt can be difficult to pay back if you allow it to accumulate. Get out of debt, and stay out of debt – your health depends on it.

By Alice Martin