Polyphasic sleep. Is it a schedule for geniuses or just an unnecessary experiment with your body?

By Vladimir Marchenko

Polyphasic sleep has been very popular among scientists, military people, people of extremes and everyone who is willing to increase the period of wakefulness. This sleep routine obtained a large number of both supporters and opponents. What are the benefits and harms of polyphasic sleep and is it possible to achieve better results by changing your sleep routine?

What is polyphasic sleep

Polyphasic sleep is a specific sleep schedule according to which the total sleep time is divided into several blocks that follow after certain periods of staying awake. Most adults stick to a monophasic sleep schedule which involves sleeping only once during the day for 6-8 hours. Monophasic sleep is a rather unique phenomenon not only in the animal kingdom but even among Homo sapiens, since children and elderly people, for example, also split their sleep into several intervals. In addition, it is known that many brilliant people practised polyphasic sleep (Leonardo da Vinci, Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison), which motivated the researchers to study the benefits of such approach more deeply.

Even in the animal kingdom there exist considerable differences in the duration of sleep. Elephants sleep around 2 hours a day while koalas and sloths, for example, rest around 20 hours a day.

Supporters of the polyphasic sleep believe that multi-stage sleep pattern is more natural for humans and that it improves physiological processes in the body and helps to unleash mental potential. It is believed that earlier in time (before the industrial revolution and the invention of light bulbs) people were more dependent on natural cycles, including daily circadian rhythm. People used to go to bed early and wake up early, rest after lunch or other meals, and shelter from the heat of the day and sleep until it’s over (a tradition of siesta in southern countries still exists). A person practising polyphasic sleep either goes through at least two stages of slow sleep or spends more time in the REM phase instead of NREM phase. Such approach allows to rest soundly in less time and increases the overall period of wakefulness and being productive. However, polyphasic sleep is not suitable for everyone.

Sleep patterns

There exist five main acknowledged sleep patterns.

Name of the pattern Hours per day Amount of naps Description
Monophasic 6-9 1Once per night for 6-9 hours
Biphasic (sometimes is called “Siesta”) 5-7 25-7 hours per night and once a day for 20 minutes in addition
Everyman 2,5-4 41,5-3 hours per night followed by 3 times for 20 minutes during the day
Dymaxion 2 44 times for 30 minutes every 5.5 hours
Uberman (“superhuman”) 2 66 times for 20 minutes every 3 hours 40 minutes

Biphasic sleep schedule

Perhaps the simplest, most common and beneficial of all alternative sleep schedules is the biphasic pattern. Sometimes it is referred to as "siesta", although siesta usually means afternoon rest, sometimes with a short nap during the hottest time of the day. Biphasic sleep pattern is practised not only in southern countries, but in kindergartens, hospitals, sanatoriums, and the army as well. The offices of the leading IT companies (Apple, Google, Microsoft) even provide special nap pods and rooms both for senior and middle management and for ordinary employees to rest during the working day. In Finland, labour unions managed to claim 30-60-minute sleep permits for workers. Companies even hire a special employee who helps to provide a pause for relaxation and meditation for the workers. Thus, the benefits of naps during the day are confirmed even at the state level of some countries and recognized as mandatory for organizations of all forms of ownership. This method is the easiest to try: just preserve normal sleep hygiene and rest regularly after lunch or at the end of the working day.

Usually, the biphasic schedule suggests one daytime nap lasting from 20 minutes to 1.5 hours which allows to reduce the nighttime sleep to 5-7 hours. Resting for 90 minutes during the day gives you an additional full sleep cycle to recharge your batteries.

Polyphasic sleep patterns

Everyman is a more advanced version of the biphasic sleep pattern. It implies a short night sleep, around 2-3 hours, and one more hour during the day divided into three equal intervals. It is considered to be a significant reduction in the total duration of sleep which is not suitable for everyone. However, it can be a good way to fight the lack of sleep from the day before.

One of the pioneers of the dymaxion sleep routine was the famous architect, designer, poet and philosopher Richard Buckminster Fuller. It appeared as his own technique that he actively experimented with it in the 1940-50s. By sleeping 30 minutes every 5.5 hours Fuller had only a 2-hour rest per day. However, according to the doctors’ opinion and his own assurance, he did not have any health problems while following this schedule. His sleep experiment lasted for two years and, ultimately, had to be abandoned due to the misunderstandings from the side of his business partners and his spouse.

Blogger Steve Pavlina was following Uberman sleep schedule (20 minutes of sleep six times per day) for 5.5 months. This pattern has remained the most eccentric of all and is definitely not suitable for beginners. Nevertheless, a detailed description of his personal feelings, as well as psychological and physiological adaptation he went through were quite interesting. He claimed that he had adapted to drowsiness, malaise, was managing his sleep phases and checking the effect of coffee, etc. Steve had to stop the experiment “due to the lack of synchronization with the outside world.”

Time for siesta varies from country to country. In Greece, for example, it is from 14 to 15-17, in Spain - from 13 to 17, in Italy - from 13 to 15-16

Scientific opinion on polyphasic sleep

Professional doctors treat polyphasic sleep with great caution, unlike the biphasic sleep pattern. In different years, various experiments were carried out, such as NASA research, testing of American pilots and Italian sailors, however, it was not possible to obtain reliable data on the effectiveness of polyphasic sleep. The transition to polyphasic pattern induces the body to either undergo an incomplete cycle of slow sleep, or to completely avoid it and go through only rapid sleep phases. In this case, it very important to strictly follow the sleep schedule instead of falling asleep accidentally or randomly time-wise, which, of course, has an impact on your daily life. Moreover, the normal circadian rhythms of sleep-wakefulness can be altered (it is rather difficult to impose a natural shift in it by more than 1-3 hours), and the production of melatonin is adversely affected as well.

The main disadvantage of any alternative sleep schedule is the adaptation period. For some people, it passes quickly and relatively easy, for others - with difficulties, provoking pain and exacerbation of chronic diseases. However, it considerably depends on a specific sleep pattern. For example, biphasic sleep has almost no contraindications, as the body adapts to it quite easily, moreover, it naturally fits the routine of work and rest. Adaptation to other sleep patterns is a much more complicated process that may not be completed to the end whereas the risk of developing side effects along the way is much higher.

Polyphasic sleep practice

The transition period from monophasic to polyphasic sleep takes from 10 to 30 days. During such adaptation, performance and attentiveness may decrease and the appetite may change as well. Sometimes there arises a feeling of “extended time” and a person can hardly wait to go to bed.

! Before you start to practise polyphasic sleep, consult with a health professional. You might have contraindications or chronic diseases that definitely do not allow you to change your sleep routine !

If you have decided to try polyphasic sleep after consulting a doctor, then follow these few recommendations:

  • decide on the appropriate sleep pattern. The most natural and easy option is the biphasic sleep with a sleep break after work (but not later than 8 pm). The optimal time for a nap is 5-6 pm. Other sleep patterns can only be considered as optional, for people with a big motivation and very good health;
  • keep a sleep diary. Write down the time you wake up and go to bed for a couple of months. Based on this data, create a new schedule for polyphasic sleep;
  • focus on your hobby. A strong passion for the things you previously did not have enough time for will absorb you and reduce your sleep time more easily;
  • do not overeat or drink alcohol. A bloated stomach provokes drowsiness, that’s why it’s better to eat more often but little by little. Hot drinks act in the same way by relaxing, even more, the body that is already tired;
  •  if you really want to sleep you can take a nap for about half an hour. It is better to impose one more sleep interval per day rather than violate the existing schedule;
  • if you feel really tired do not drive or perform other activities that require concentration.
The "Sleepless Elite" (people who need only several hours of sleeping per night) make up 1-3% of the total population of the Earth

It is recommended that you carefully record your feelings, especially in the first few months of polyphasic sleep. If the feeling of discomfort, drowsiness, inability to concentrate does not go away it is better to return to monophasic sleep. Side effects of unsuccessful adaptation to polyphasic sleep can also include persistent drowsiness and nausea.

Back to monophasic sleep

Many people return to a more common monophasic sleep pattern during the adaptation period. Someone fails to adhere to the alternative schedule due to health issues, others - due to incompatibility with the life rhythm of the others or with office hours. There is no data on any serious problems concerning returning to the normal sleep routine. Very often polyphasic sleep supporters simply use a variation of biphasic sleep (siesta) or a combination of different sleep patterns with considerable sleep deprivation.

If you are thinking of experimenting with sleep in order to increase productivity you can try another way of improving your abilities with the Hypnopedia application. The app will provide you with a complex of tools for pumping your mental health during sleep. For more sound and beneficial sleep, use a set of relaxing nature sounds in the app. They can be combined the way you prefer and, moreover, the volume of individual sounds can be adjusted separately from the general background. The main feature of the app which helps to unleash the internal mental potential is the affirmations that are reproduced at the optimal sleep stage. You don’t need to wake up to listen to them as the affirmations are perceived by your subconscious mind, and the effects of them are preserved after waking up. Additionally, built-in smart alarm clock function assists in soft morning rise that occurs at the most favourable sleep stage within the preferred period of awakening.

Ссылка App Store

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If at some point you feel the necessity to give up the monophasic sleep schedule (f.e. working on your PhD or some other project, freelancing, or in the extreme conditions) you can try mild forms of polyphasic sleep, however, only if you are a healthy individual. Everyone has their own suitable sleep duration and, for most people, it is around 6-8 hours. Nevertheless, by gradually reducing it without intense changes you can develop a new sleep schedule that will allow you to stay awake and productive even with fewer hours of rest.

It is important to remember that many great people who slept very little were often completely obsessed with their ideas and were craving for achieving them. If your motivation and projects are as big as Caesar’s plans or Tesla’s ideas, then you definitely won’t waste time sleeping. If you would like "just to try" alternative sleep schedules without being motivated by a great idea, then most likely your body will soon return you to normal sleep schedule or just resist tha changes. Polyphasic sleep is not suitable for 9-to-6-pm working hours as well as regular meetings with friends and relatives. The time of your wakefulness will simply not coincide with the people’s normal daily routine. So choose your sleep pattern wisely.

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