3 Old-Fashioned Sleep Hacks That Science Says Actually Work
For as long as humans have been falling asleep, we've been theorizing about how sleep works, what dreams are for, and how to sleep better. But sleep science, even today, reveals that there's still a lot we don't know about the art of sleeping — and that what we do know, ancient physicians may have known earlier before. While a great deal of old-fashioned knowledge about sleep is pretty inaccurate, some things people thought about sleep back in the day might even work better than some of the sleep hacks of today.
Sometimes old knowledge about sleep gets the right answer for the wrong reasons. For instance, Aristotelian theories about sleep, which held sway until the Industrial Revolution, tied sleep closely to digestion and "life force," and so suggested that sleep was the key to living a long life. Recent studies have found that this is true: lots of sleep on your days off does help you live longer, possibly because it lowers the stressful effects of sleep deprivation during the week. Beyond sleeping for a longer life, though, these three very old ideas about sleep with long histories are coming back into fashion. Get ready to put on some very old-fashioned pajamas and have a century-old sleep.
1. Two-Shift Sleep
Sleep scientists believe that, before the Industrial Revolution, the introduction of artificial light, and the regulated workday, people mostly slept in two shifts. They had a "first sleep" after sunset, then woke up in the middle of the night, ate, read, had sex with their partners, or chatted — then, went back to bed. Their "second sleep" lasted till daybreak. This behavior shows up consistently in texts and books all the way up until the 17th century, and modern science says it may actually be a healthier way to get your 40 winks than sleeping for a single eight-hour stretch.
Some scientists, reported the BBC in 2012, believe that the idea of eight hours of sleep at once isn't natural, and that the body drifts towards a segmented sleep pattern of its own accord. The old-fashioned two-sleep night, now renamed biphasic or polyphasic sleep, has become a fashionable way to "hack" your sleep patterns, and a 1990s study of adults exposed to 10 hours of darkness found they mostly settled into a two-sleep pattern on their own. If you're the wake-in-the-night type, it may be a good idea not to fight it; get out of bed, read a little, then go back to sleep, just like your ancestors did.
2. Take Power Naps – Every Day
The idea of the siesta has been challenged by the introduction of the modern nine to five work day, but getting a proper nap in the afternoons has a very long history. A physician's text from the fifth century BC advises that you should nap every afternoon during the summer to mitigate the effects of heat on the body's "humors." The siesta, however, may need to be introduced more widely, because studies show it's good for you.
Research on cultures where napping every day is prevalent, including Greece and Spain, has found that sleeping during the afternoon on a regular schedule appears to reduce the risk of heart issues and lower the need for medications for blood pressure. Harvard researchers also note that experiments have shown increased cognitive benefits from regular daily napping. It's not a replacement for lost sleep, but if it's incorporated into your sleep schedule on the regular, it seems to help overall health.
3. Drinking Almond Milk Before Sleep
Your grandma may have suggested a glass of warm milk before bed to soothe you when you were a kid, but nut milk for the same purpose is a much older trend — and may be more effective. Back in 1637, historian Dr. Katharine Craik wrote for History Today, a doctor called Tobias Venner had a recipe for curing insomnia: "a good draught of soporiferous Almond milke." Venner's draught wasn't just almond milk — he recommended that it be flavored with violets and rosewater, among other ingredients — but the basic idea, despite being over 300 years old, appears to actually be pretty sound.
Warm dairy milk is believed to help sleep because of its calming, nurturing associations. Almond milk, however, is recommended in its place by some physicians because it possesses the same amount of calcium in calcium-fortified versions as cow's milk, but isn't going to trigger lactose intolerance. Almond milk, like milk, contains tryptophan, an amino acid that interacts with the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin to induce sleepiness. However, a small glass will only have a minor amount, so the effects depend on your sensitivity to tryptophan and other factors.
Some sleep hacks don't actually do much good at all. But these three tips from the past may make your sleep better and help you wake up more refreshed. Get excited to sleep the old-fashioned way.