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Posted: April 4, 2013 7:23 p.m.

Morgan: Sleep cycles a new thought

"What hath night to do with sleep?" wrote John Milton in

Paradise Lost. Indeed.

For many of us, there is apparently little that connects nighttime with the ability to get a consistent night’s rest of the usually recommended eight hours.

One in five Americans are said to suffer chronic sleep deprivation, while 1/3 of adult workers in this country, some 41 million, get six or fewer hours of sleep a night, according to a New York Times Sunday Review article by David K. Randall (Sept. 22, 2012).

Chronic insomnia is one thing entirely, but even lesser degrees of sleep distress contribute to America’s sleep deficit. (Now there’s a deficit worth fighting over.)

We are challenged to fall asleep easily, to stay asleep or to fall back asleep after one of those insistent urges to visit the facilities in the small room adjoining the bedroom.

Poppy Z. Brite is an author of Gothic horror novels of the 1990s and captured best — for me — what it’s like to spend the darkest hours lying in wait for sleep to come or to return: "The night is the hardest time to be alive and 4 a.m. knows all my secrets."

In fitful wakefulness, my head fills with things not finished the previous day, things to be reviewed, assessed or regretted, or things to be done come the new day.

I try to judge the depth of the darkness outside to determine if there’s enough time to get back to sleep before the sun comes stealing over the rooftops, before Sonny needs to go out and the cats clamor to be fed.

Should I stay in bed, hopeful sleep will return or should I hoist myself out of bed to read in another room?

Not even that is a sure thing, and I am often still reading as dawn comes slowly on. Sleep had dodged me again.

There’s plenty of research of late that relates a lack of sleep with a plethora of health problems, such as obesity, diabetes, depression, high blood pressure and memory issues.

(Maybe that’s the answer to the daily game called, "Where’d I leave my phone?")

There’s even a possible link between sleep issues and the detection of early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, according to a Washington Post article published Dec. 3, 2012. But I’m not going there, here.

It is certainly easy enough to blame our sleeplessness on the reckless pace of our lives, the technology we just can’t put down or turn off, or debatable health practices, such as too much caffeine or alcohol or lack of exercise. However, if John Milton gives any indication, sleep likely has been an issue for mankind from time immemorial.

Think of cavemen gathered around a slowly crackling fire with one eye fast asleep and the other cast warily about for predators who might appear out of the gloom intent on a late supper.

And certainly there have always been mothers whose babies demand to be fed, changed or rocked in the middle of the night. Sleep for them becomes a faded memory.

Randall, the New York Times opinion author, takes aim at the accepted recommendation to strive for a good eight hours of sleep at night, an elusive goal for far too many. (I would take just six or seven.)

"The idea that we should sleep in eight-hour chunks is relatively recent.

The world’s population sleeps in various and surprising ways.

Millions of Chinese workers continue to put their heads on their desks for a nap of an hour or so after lunch, for example, and daytime napping is common from India to Spain."

He cites research by a Virginia Tech professor A. Roger Ekirch in the 1990s who looked into the written history of sleep.

The professor found numerous references in some of the oldest literature and medical records to something called "first sleep," meaning the first block of sleep that one experiences, to be followed by a second sleep cycle after a period of time spent awake in reflection, meditation or making plans for the next day.

Have we been misled into believing something is wrong if we cannot sleep eight hours straight through — "the tyranny of the eight-hour block," as Randall puts it?

Might our bodies prefer the indulgence of two separate sleep cycles?

Could the middle-of-the-night wakefulness be considered a good thing, the best of times for useful reflection, meditation, sorting, list making and prayer?

Next time it hits, I may just try to relax myself through it instead of fighting it, as I have done over the years, with every alternative or medicinal remedy available.

In doing so, in giving in to the moment, in using the awake time for useful thinking, maybe I’ll find an easier and less fitful path back to the restful sleep for which I so pine.

Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics. She can be reached at barbm2158@gmail.com.

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