In a world where almost everyone is running around trying to balance their work and home responsibilities, whilst also fitting in exercise and even a social life in between, getting the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night can be a challenge for many people.
So it’s not surprising that people throughout history have tried to cope on less sleep (famously, Margaret Thatcher, Thomas Edison, and Alexander Graham Bell were all said to get just four hours of sleep a night), or that many adults sleep in on weekends in an attempt to “catch up” with the hours they lost during the week. But some people have taken this to extreme levels, training themselves to cope on just two hours of sleep every 24 hours.
Whereas, the average person has a “monophasic” sleeping schedule, where they sleep in one continuous chunk at night between 7 and 9 hours, some people adapt less conventional approaches to sleep including, biphasic sleeping schedules (two sleeps in 24 hours) or polyphasic sleeping schedules (3 or more sleeps in 24 hours).
A couple of reasons that people may adapt to a polyphasic sleeping schedule are, they have a schedule which leaves them unable to sleep continuously, or they may wish to extend the amount of hours in the day where they can be productive. However, there is not a lot of research into any long term effects that these alternative sleeping schedules could have and there are many risks involved with not getting enough sleep including, an increased risk of hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack, and stroke, which may apply to people who choose to adopt these schedules.
In order to get a good night’s sleep with all of the restorative benefits, your body goes through several cycles, each lasting approximately 90 minutes. One cycle will consist of three stages of non-REM sleep, followed by one period of REM sleep. REM sleep stands for “rapid eye movement”, and involves your eyes moving quickly in different directions, this is where dreaming is most vivid.
The three stages of non-REM sleep are:
- Stage 1: This stage occurs mostly at the beginning of sleep, and lasts only about 5 minutes. You are very easy to wake at this stage and may believe you were never asleep when this happens.
- Stage 2: At this stage, you are in a light sleep, and can be easily awakened, your heart rate slows and body temperature drops. This lasts from 10 to 25 minutes.
- Stage 3: This is the deepest stage of sleep. Here, your body repairs and regrows tissues, strengthens the immune system, and builds bone and muscle. It is difficult to wake you at this stage and you would feel disorientated for several minutes. Dreams can occur in this stage. However, they are generally less vivid and less memorable than dreams during REM sleep.
This is then followed by REM sleep, the first period usually lasts ten minutes, getting longer each time until the last period which can last an hour. Your arm and leg muscles are paralyzed during this stage and this is the stage where vivid dreaming occurs. The exact function is not known but without it, people find it difficult to learn complex tasks. When people are deprived of REM sleep, they will sleep for longer in this stage at the next opportunity, skipping quickly through the non-REM stages. This suggests that REM sleep is essential to our sleep cycles.
A lot of polyphasic sleeping patterns rely on training the body to enter REM sleep in a 20 minute nap. However, this means skipping through the other stages of sleep very fast. Non-REM sleep is often dismissed as “wasted sleep” by those who have these sleeping patterns. However, although studies have shown REM sleep to be important, there is no research to say that REM is definitely more restorative than non-REM sleep so attempting to cut out these stages of sleep could be dangerous. Therefore, this lack of full sleep cycles could be detrimental to health long term.
However, there is research which found that some people naturally require less sleep than others. Approximately 1% of the population have the DEC2 gene which allows them to function perfectly fine on just 6 hours of sleep a night or less, so for those people, a polyphasic sleeping schedule may be a lot easier to adjust and stick to.
Biphasic sleep involves sleeping twice a day. There are different forms of this, one form is “segmented sleep”, where a person sleeps for 3.5-4 hours, wakes up for 1 or two hours and then goes back to sleep for another 3.5-4 hours. There is historical evidence that this is a sleeping pattern which was adopted by our ancestors until just a couple hundred years ago. During the time awake, people would participate in activities such as, praying, thinking about their dreams, reading, talking to their bed partners or even going to visit neighbours.
Some people claim that this may be the most natural sleeping pattern, and that it was eliminated from our lives when street and domestic lighting were introduced into our day to day lives, increasing the number of activities which could be done into the night and giving us less time to dedicate to rest.
Another biphasic sleeping pattern involves the person going to sleep at night for 5-6 hours and then taking a nap of either 20 or 90 minutes in the middle of the day. However, some people who wish to cut down on the amount of hours spent sleeping try to cut down the main (or ‘core’) sleep at night to the shortest time that they can manage, which could have negative health implications.
In some countries, particularly in the Mediterranean, biphasic sleeping is common. In these countries, it’s common to take a nap after the midday meal called a siesta. Taking a nap at this time of day is ideal in these countries as the heat can be unbearable in the early afternoon.
There are a few different polyphasic sleeping patterns which have been used throughout history. Some of the most commonly implemented are:
- Dymaxion Cycle: This is the most difficult sleeping pattern to adjust to as it requires taking just four 30 minute naps throughout the day, meaning you only receive 2 hours of sleep every 24 hours. This can be quite difficult to schedule as taking 30 minute naps in the middle of the day can be impractical to fit around work or other commitments for most people.
- Uberman Cycle: Similar to the dymaxion, the uberman can also require just 2 hours of sleep every 24 hours, spread out as 6 naps, each lasting 20 minutes. However, on this sleeping schedule, 7 or 8 naps can be taken throughout the day. This sleeping schedule is difficult to adapt and stick to as the sleep times are very inflexible even when the body has adjusted. This means that missing one nap can make a person feel as though they have missed an entire night’s sleep. For most people’s life styles, this is extremely impractical as the majority of the world is monophasic. It definitely wouldn’t work for anyone who has a typical 9-5 job, and not being able to partake in any activities which last more than 3.5 hours generally has a hugely negative effect on people’s social lives.
- Everyman Cycle: This cycle consists of 4 sleeps, one core sleep of 3.5 hours and three 20 minute naps. This can be slightly easier than the dymaxion and uberman cycles to adapt to as it has some flexibility in the amount of naps and what time they are taken, and the core sleep can be extended once the person has adapted. However, it can still be difficult to adapt to as it means cutting down the amount of sleep to almost half of what is recommended.
All of these sleeping patterns can be extremely difficult to adjust to at first, making the person feel like a zombie for the first few weeks or even months. If a person then becomes ill, even if just with a cold, it means that they have to stop and take the amount of rest they need to recover, this can throw off the sleeping pattern altogether, resulting in them having to start from the beginning and going through the adjustment period again.
Most people on these sleeping patterns need to watch their diet in order for them to be able to take naps at the times they are required. This generally means being unable to drink alcohol, coffee, or anything else with a strong caffeine content.
The potential benefits of polyphasic sleeping schedules are uncertain as there is not enough research into them to know whether or not they are safe. However, the long term health risks of sleep deprivation, both in the short and long term, have been scientifically proven so doing anything to increase these risks is ill-advised. Getting a good night’s sleep has been proven to have mental, physical and restorative benefits. It increases your energy levels and productivity so that you can be at your best - these are all things that polyphasic sleeping is trying to achieve, without the risks. So next time you want to get more out of your day, you would be better off ditching the weird sleeping schedule for a good night’s sleep!