Spark·First Person

Waking up in the middle of the night? Thank your pre-industrial ancestors

Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it! Everybody sleeps. But how has the way we sleep evolved with the technology we've developed?

Before the Industrial Revolution, most people slept in 2 shifts, says sleep expert Roger Ekirch

The way we sleep has evolved over the centuries, and tech has played played a role in that evolution. (Rawpixel/Shutterstock)

This First Person article is the experience of Adam Killick, a producer for CBC Radio's Spark. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I have a fraught history with sleep. That is to say, I'm often not very good at it.

Over the years, I've tried all manner of ways to try to get a good night's sleep: White noise, pink noise, rain noise, running a fan, wearing earbuds all night, using a sleep mask, various medications — the list goes on.

And that was before the pandemic.

So when I got the chance to have my sleep studied, I jumped at it. Well, given how tired I am (and who isn't these days?) it was more like a desperate lunge.

Typically, you'd go to a special facility to do a sleep study. A technician wires you up to machines that monitor your brain activity, heart rate, breathing, body movement and so on. Then you'd try to sleep in a strange bed, knowing that the technician was observing you.

Now, a Canadian company called Cerebra Health has condensed that entire experience into a container slightly larger than a shoebox, which contains all the devices required to properly monitor sleep.

So on a recent Sunday night, I dispatched my partner to another room, and set about the hour-long process to connect myself to the equipment.

There's a chest strap, to which you attach a black box about the size of a TV remote control. Plugged into that are electrode wires, which you stick on various parts of your body: two on each leg, just below the knee, one on your stomach. Another connects to the strap itself.

Then, there's another, smaller black box you stick right in the middle of your forehead. From that, the wires go to both eyes, the bone behind your ear, and your chin.

Spark producer Adam Killick gets wired up with a home sleep lab kit. (Adam Killick/CBC)

For the chin electrode, I had to shave off my beard, which I'd had for more than two years.

Lastly, there is a set of nasal cannula — a pair of small tubes — that you stick up your nose for the night.

Fun times!

I slept surprisingly well the first night, although I remember waking up a lot. (I can't imagine why.)

Regardless, the sleep scientist, Amy Bender, got enough data to provide an assessment of my sleep.  

Bender is the scientific director at Cerebra Health, the Winnipeg-based company that makes the take-home sleep lab.

A quick search on any app store brings up dozens, if not hundreds of apps designed to help you sleep better. Then there are the smartwatches, fitness bands and other devices that clean to measure out sleep and assess our "readiness" to perform when we wake up.

But Bender, who did postdoctoral research studying the sleep habits of Olympic athletes, said that often those apps end up causing us more anxiety: reading the morning sleep report can merely add stress.

Indeed, if you have a wearable device and fret about your sleep statistics, she advised not wearing it to bed.

"If I'm looking at the app, and it's telling me that my readiness score is a 40, that could impact my performance when, in reality, I could have slept okay that night, and maybe done better without the feedback from that information," she told Young.

Sleeping in shifts

Prior to the industrial revolution and the invention of the electric light, most of our ancestors actually slept in two shifts, spending the time in between awake. It's known as biphasic sleep.

"They slept in two chunks of roughly three and a half hours, separated by an hour or so of wakefulness shortly after midnight," Roger Ekirch, a history professor at Virginia Tech, told Spark host Nora Young.

During that waking period, they prayed, meditated, or "engaged in connubial bliss," added Ekirch, author of At Day's Close: Night in Times Past — a watershed moment in sleep studies when it was published in 2005.

Roger Ekirch's work uncovering the pre-20th century history of 'segmented sleep' has challenged assumptions about the way we sleep. (Virginia Tech)

In the 19th century, the invention of gas—and soon after, electric—lighting spelled the end for biphasic sleep.

"It pushed back the time that people went to bed. And yet... they still had to get up at the normal time that they had in the past, thereby limiting the amount of sleep that they could enjoy if they were now retiring at 11 pm rather than nine or 10," Ekirch said.

Also, as the Industrial Revolution drove an increased emphasis on productivity, excessive sleep was frowned upon, and work and social pressure began to limit the number of hours spent in bed.

Sound familiar? All of that has led to today, where many of us, like me, suffer from less-than-optimal sleep habits.

Dr. Amy M. Bender is on a mission to help people sleep better. (Sleep4Sport/Twitter)

Bender said there are several simple ways to improve the quality of our sleep—none of which depend on technology.

Rather, Bender suggested that getting outside for 30 minutes each day—preferably in the morning—is really important. "That's going to help regulate our circadian rhythms and help lead to better sleep quality at night," she said.

Conversely, spending all day looking at artificial light sources can confuse our brains, she said.

It may be necessary to limit screen time before bed. It's not just the blue light from your phone, tablet or computer, Bender said, but also the content.

"If you're watching a murder mystery show or something that could make you more alert and release cortisol [the fight-or-flight hormone] then it's probably not a good thing."

It's also good to establish a solid pre-sleep routine. She suggested setting an alarm for an hour before you go to bed, to signal to your brain that it's time to slow things down.

"I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but limit the caffeine and alcohol, too,  because we know those can disturb our sleep as well," she added.

Bender said there are some technologies on the horizon that could help make sleep analysis even less invasive than attaching 16 electrodes to your body, such as an EEG recorder that's about the size of a Band-Aid, that you would stick on your forehead.

It could be useful in providing much more individualized information, such as whether having a cup of coffee at lunchtime affects your ability to sleep at bedtime.

As long as it doesn't take me an hour and five minutes to set up, I'd be fine with that.

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