Insomnia or Natural Biorhythms?

This is a post for all of the folks that inquire about sleep and insomnia…  I suspect, that a decent amount of you actually have nothing wrong with you.  And, more importantly, the 8 hours of *uninterrupted* sleep a night thing is a myth!

What I view as sleep problems are the following:

  • can’t fall asleep in the first place
  • when I wake up during the night, it takes me longer than 1-2 hours to fall back asleep

This is just my opinion based on my research and understanding of natural sleep biorhythms.

Sure, insomnia could indicate certain imbalances of a particular organ or organ-systems…or, a nervous system that is maxed out.  As well, all the screens we are interacting with before bedtime could also lessen melatonin production, thus making it difficult for us to fall asleep in the first place.

But, I want to underscore that sleeping 8 hours a night, the entire night through…is just a myth.  With that said, I’d like to share a bit about segmented sleep.

moon art

Moon Art by Lucy Campbell

I realized that segmented sleep or first sleep, second sleep was a real thing in the later part of SF years.  I would wake up at 3 am like clock-work and not be able to fall back asleep for at least an hour.  I became anxious about this happening and, looking back, I see how that the anxiety just made things worse.  Instead of wading into that creative and therapeutic liminal space that that hour provided, I resisted it due to fear and missed my opportunities in personal and spiritual growth.

Things became clear to me that waking up was normal when I moved to the remote mountains of NC in the winter of 2009-10.  I thought, for sure, that I would finally get 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep!

But no…  Way out there…without light pollution…with no sirens…with the steady cadence of insects…I experienced segmented sleep, the most profoundly.  Almost every night, I would wake up at 3 am.  At first, I was anxious…but then I realized this was a great time to delve into my dream-work.  I would journal my dreams and process them in the middle of the night.  I began to embrace this time of night as a mystical, soul-enriching time for contemplation.

You know, I couldn’t do anything about it (smile), so I learned to surrender to what was happening.


Fortunately, right about that time…I had gone to get a massage in a town nearby.  While waiting for my appointment, I picked up a book by Robert Moss (who is a dream-worker).  In his introduction, he talks about about the myth of the uninterrupted 8-hour sleep and the reality of segmented sleep.  I remember feeling a wave of relief wash over me.  It was just a paragraph in his introduction, but it affirmed my intuition and helped me embrace my segmented sleep even more.

Since then, I’ve done a good bit of research.  I’ve collected some articles and interviews on the topic that I’d like to share here:

“References to “first sleep” or “deep sleep” and “second sleep” or “morning sleep” abound in legal depositions, literature and other archival documents from pre-Industrial European times. Gradually, though, during the 19th century, “language changed and references to segmented sleep fell away,” said Ekirch. “Now people call it insomnia.”

An excerpt from Busting the 8-hour Sleep Myth.

Here’s an NPR interview with David Randall, the author of “Dreamland,” on the science of sleep.

“Everybody knows an infant’s sleep schedule proceeds without regard to day or night (the technical term is polyphasic) while the sleep of a teenager is stubbornly out of sync with the working world. This should not be construed as a lifestyle choice, though: Hormones temporarily land adolescents in a time zone a few thousand miles west of their parents and teachers. Some proactive school districts are now starting high school classes a couple of hours later than usual, with reported improvements in alertness and test scores.”

An excerpt from a book review on Randall’s book, “Dreamland.”

“We often worry about lying awake in the middle of the night – but it could be good for you. A growing body of evidence from both science and history suggests that the eight-hour sleep may be unnatural.

In the early 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr conducted an experiment in which a group of people were plunged into darkness for 14 hours every day for a month.

It took some time for their sleep to regulate but by the fourth week the subjects settled into a very distinct sleeping pattern. They slept first for four hours, then woke for one or two hours before falling into a second four-hour sleep….”

An excerpt from this blog post on Beyond Meds about segmented sleep.

With all of that in mind, I still want to share some herbs and supplements that could be helpful for you if you are still crafting your relationship with the dream-time.

  • First of all, try not to interact with screens at least 1 hour (ideally 2-3 hours) before bedtime.
  • Try taking an epsom salt bath to soothe the nervous system and increase magnesium levels (which is helpful for some forms of anxiety and/or depression)
  • Try other night-time rituals to help you calm your nervous system and remove you from too much stimulation
  • Herbs to help you fall asleep are relaxing or sedative nervines like hops, passionflower, valerian, lemon verbena, and lemon balm.  Take them as a tincture or a tea.
  • Herbs to help deepen your REM sleep (to help you stay asleep) are ashwagandha, magnolia, and passionflower.  I suggest these in tincture form.
  • Finally, to help you get to sleep and either stay asleep or, at least, have a manageable segmented sleep, you can take melatonin.  Here is a good quote from herbalist and doctor, Tieraona Low Dog, MD:

“Melatonin is a hormone made by your body’s pineal gland that is part of your internal clock. During the day, melatonin is barely detectable, but as darkness falls, the pineal gland begins to secrete melatonin. With this increase, your body temperature begins to slightly drop, you feel less alert and you get ready for sleep.

Melatonin levels stay elevated for ~10 hours, falling as the sun rises. Our internal clock can get disrupted, however, with our irregular sleep schedules, high stress levels, and exposure to light late into the night due to televisions, computers, phones, etc.

Nearly 70 million Americans now report suffering from insomnia. Data from the clinical studies showed that taking melatonin helped people with their insomnia. It is considered safe to take for up to one year continuously, does not cause rebound insomnia when discontinuing it, and does not suppress the body’s natural production of melatonin when used at doses of 1-3 mg.

Sustained release melatonin is better for sleep, while fast acting appears better for those with heartburn. I generally recommend trying for 30 days to decide whether it’s right for you. People over the age of 50 seem to do particularly well, as melatonin levels naturally decline with age.”

It’s interesting to note that she mentioned heartburn in this excerpt.  In regards to this, she writes:

“Melatonin has gotten plenty of press as a natural way to re-establish your circadian rhythm but it also has some surprising secondary uses such as preventing heartburn and easing symptoms of IBS. Why would that be? Because the pineal gland gets most of the credit for melatonin production, many people are unaware that cells in the GI tract produce large quantities as well.

As melatonin levels rise, two things happen. The production of stomach acid is dialed back and the sphincter between your stomach and esophagus is tightened, preventing upward flow of acid.

A well-done study in 2010 showed that 3 mg of melatonin before bedtime improved reflux symptoms in patients with GERD and at the 8-week mark, the effects of melatonin rivaled that of Prilosec! Melatonin also helps protect the lining of the stomach and small intestine and is found in high concentrations in the large intestine where it regulates motility and prevents cramping, which is why it can help IBS.

As far as safety: studies suggest that in otherwise healthy people, doses of 3 mg of melatonin taken daily for up to one year are not associated with adverse effects or rebound reflux or insomnia upon discontinuation. You should check with your physician or midwife before using during pregnancy or while breastfeeding.”

I have one more thing to share about sleep.  Sleep is a magical time.  It is a mystical time.  It is a healing time.  It is one of the few times in this modern world that we actually get to feel the presence of the mystery.

Make time for it.  Be curious about it.

What kind of dreams are you having?  Do you remember your dreams?

Based on my personal experience with segmented sleep and work with clients, I also know that disrupted sleep (I mean disrupted beyond the normal segmented sleep) can herald in a time of personal awakening.  Of course, this is not the case every time…but there is often something in your subconscious trying to reconcile itself.

Sometimes being still in the dark brings up things that we haven’t tended to or confronted yet.  The sleep world and the dream-time happen to be very honest realms.

Consider if there is something your soul is trying to tell you.  And, if so, explore ways to make adjustments in your life so that you can stay on your path…

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