by Riverdave Owen

November 25, 2012


In my ongoing effort to manage my Lyme condition, I recently was stimulated by a lecture I attended at Duke Medical Center entitled, Effects of Light at Night on Neuroinflammation, Metabolism and Mood.  As I listened to the researcher from Ohio State University, I had one of those "aha" moments that tells me that a new insight is forming that has personal relevance.  Here are my thoughts:


For much of my adult life I have been a restless sleeper. I have a windy constitution which often presents symptoms of insomnia.  In recent years while struggling with Lyme disease, I find myself even more prone to wake up after midnight with restless thoughts that make it difficult to return to sleep.  My usual way of dealing with this is to turn on a bedside lamp and read for an hour or two, or less often, go into another room and work on a writing project with the computer.  


But this recent lecture by Dr. Randy Nelson challenged me to think of better, more natural alternatives to deal with my insomnia.  Through many years of research, he has shown that a very small amount of artificial light exposure, even as much as a brief glance at a plug-in night light, can cause a person's melatonin level to crash for the remainder of the night.  The effects of chronically low melatonin levels are well documented - the depression of both mental and immune functions and an increase in both obesity and diabetes.    


Dr. Nelson also pointed to a book published in 2006, At Day's Close: Night in Times Past, by A. Roger Ekirch, where research into sleep patterns in preindustrial Europe and America points to a traditional and beneficial, segmented sleep pattern.  Without electricity people often went to bed shortly after sunset.  Then at the end of their "first sleep," rose at midnight for what was known as the "midnight watch."  Only wax or tallow candles, oil lamps and fireplaces were used for lighting, which have since been shown to not significantly depress melatonin levels.  The following activities were traditionally done during the midnight watch in the pre-electricity era:


1 - elimination 

2 - taking herbal teas and medicines

3 - dream recollection and sharing

4 - spiritual practices

5 - pillow talk with family members 

6 - physical intimacy with one's partner 

7 - moonlight stroll in summer

8 - fire tending in winter

9 - simple household chores

10 - check on children, pets and farm animals 


Such low-light activities would insure that a natural circadian (24 hour day/night) cycle would be maintained.  After an hour or two of midnight watch, one would return to bed for the "second sleep" which lasted until sunrise. So on a simplified scale, segmented sleep might amount to four hours of first phase sleep, an hour or two of midnight watch, and finally four hours of second phase sleep. Done in darkness or candle light, this could all be accomplished without a precipitous drop in melatonin levels or overall sleep disturbance. Research by Dr. Nelson in his sleep lab has also confirmed that when denied artificial lighting between sunset and sunrise, the human biological clock will reset to this segmented sleep pattern on its own after several weeks .


So in the interest of aligning my own biological clock with a natural circadian rhythm and keeping my hormonal productions balanced to achieve better immune function, I am now in my fourth week of experimenting with this segmented, biphasic sleep pattern.  So far I have found the transition to be easier than expected.  I am also experiencing a growing peace of mind that perhaps my so called insomnia is not pathologic after all, but is actually closer to what was a normal sleep cycle before modern life was inundated with artificial light pollution.  


My own experiment is a work in progress.  Dr. Nelson suggested that at four weeks, the body begins to adjust favorably to this shift in sleep pattern.  That is where I am now in my own trial.  I plan to continue this segmented sleep pattern for at least several months to see how I respond.  For all those struggling with Lyme Disease, or any other immune compromising condition, I pass this idea on and challenge you to examine your sleep patterns in terms of this historical perspective on segmented sleep.  Local physician Dr. Joanne Pizzino states that insomnia is the most common complaint she hears from her patients.  Except for the offsetting price of burning a few candles instead of light bulbs, practicing this traditional form of segmented sleep may prove to be a cost free therapeutic practice with potential for significant health support.




Ekirch, A. Roger.  At Day's Close: Night in Times Past.  W.W. Norton & Company, 2006.

Nelson, Randy.  Effects of Light at Night on Neuroinflammation, Metabolism and Mood.  Lecture at the Duke University Institute for Brain                                    Sciences, November 2, 2012.

Pizzino, Joanne, MD. Whole Health Solutions, Cary, NC