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For Americans struggling to sleep, does the answer lie in how people slept in medieval times?

Sleeping woman in bed circa the 1950s. (George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)
Sleeping woman in bed circa the 1950s. (George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

How did you sleep last night?

The answer is never simple for the 70 million or so Americans who suffer from sleep disorders like insomnia.

Among those struggling to get a good night’s sleep is The Atlantic staff writer Derek Thompson, whose search for answers to his own sleep issues led to some pretty interesting sleep history. He writes about it in his new article, “Can Medieval Sleeping Habits Fix America’s Insomnia?”

Getting seven consecutive hours of sleep is “not a historical norm,” he says.

In his research, Thompson stumbled upon the work of sleep historian Roger Ekirch, who has been writing for decades about the medieval practice of segmented sleep — when humans hundreds of years ago in Europe and beyond would get shut-eye in two chunks as opposed to one long snooze.

“They would fall asleep around nightfall,” Thompson says, “and then they would wake up in the middle of the night for a bit of an intermission.” In between sleeps, people typically would engage in stress-free activities like chat by the fire, work for few hours or have sex with their partners, he says.

This is how pre-industrial Europe specifically slept before artificial light and the modern workday. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best way to get a restful night’s sleep, he says.

There’s evidence that suggests pre-industrial hunter-gathers from around the world slept in one phase like modern Americans do now, Thompson says, and attempts to restore segmented sleep for modern adults has shown snoozing in two segments doesn’t necessarily lead to better results.

“The human body seems so flexible when it comes to sleep that just about any single strategy you have — as long as there is a routine behind it — has the possibility of serving as a restful sleep,” he says.

Today, many people have comfortable beds, temperature-controlled rooms and less worries about housing structures, all factors that can have impacts on sleep. Yet some are still sleeping poorly due to stress, work, societal issues, biological implications, etc.

No matter what keeps you up at night, Thompson says the science is clear that sticking to that routine as much as possible is key.

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.