Polyphasic Sleep: Benefits and Potential Risks
Everyone’s sleep schedule is different. Some people feel more alert and productive in the morning while others are night owls. High-energy individuals claim to function best on just 5 or 6 hours of sleep while others require at least 8 hours or more to function at optimal levels.
While the CDC recommends adults get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep and follow a consistent sleep schedule, this isn’t always possible. Overtime shifts at work, vacations, and certain life events often interfere with a person’s ability to get enough shut-eye.
The ideal sleep schedule involves going to bed at the same time each night and waking at the same time every morning. This is done in an effort to set your circadian rhythm or internal sleep-wake cycle. But this isn’t the only type of sleep schedule people follow.
Polyphasic sleep schedules involve sleeping over two or more periods of time throughout the day. These periods can be short or long. For example, you could take a short afternoon nap followed by a later bedtime. This sleep schedule is similar to what most infants naturally follow before 3 months of age.
So, how exactly does this schedule work, and is it beneficial? Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about polyphasic sleep and if it’s a healthy choice for you.
What is Polyphasic Sleep?
As mentioned above, polyphasic sleep involves sleeping in more than two distinct periods per day. Depending on the structure, polyphasic sleep doesn’t always reduce the total number of hours you sleep per day. Some people adopt this sleep schedule in an effort to maximize wakeful hours and increase productivity while reducing how much they spend in bed or asleep. It’s interesting to note that many mammals in nature follow a polyphasic sleep pattern, although many humans are programmed to use monophasic sleep or a singular sleep phase that includes one, extended period of time.
The Theory Behind Polyphasic Sleep
From a very young age, we’re taught that a “normal” sleep schedule involves going to bed when it’s dark and waking up after the sun comes up. Sleep duration varies widely from one individual to the next and is largely based on work schedules and family obligations. Mental health and medical conditions are two more factors that determine your sleep schedule.
Additionally, most people believe they should fall asleep within 20 minutes of laying down, however, this is rarely the case. Stress, anxiety, and screen use are all linked to longer sleep latency (the time it takes you to fall asleep).
Over the years, sleep doctors, specialists, and scientists have determined that these sleep patterns can’t be applied to all people or societies. Variations do exist that allow some individuals to perform optimally. For example, a shift worker may need to adopt a polyphasic or biphasic sleep schedule to thrive. Parents of newborn babies also need to adjust their sleep schedule to meet the demands of their infant. Accommodating your sleep patterns and schedule to your individual lifestyle isn’t unheard of and has become increasingly accepted in the world of sleep medicine.
Certain historical references support this theory including the sleep needs of the hunter-gatherer society. For this group of people, daylight largely dictated their sleep routines and patterns. Hunters needed daylight for killing and collecting food. Over time, their brains naturally adjusted to this need by adopting a sleep pattern that allowed them to be awake and alert during daylight and rest during nightfall.
Supporters of the polyphasic sleep schedule claim that humans don’t need a single, sustained period of sleep to function at optimal levels. These advocates go on to say that, with time and consistency, the body’s natural circadian rhythm can be adjusted to thrive on a polyphasic pattern. Soon, these shorter, more frequent, periods of sleep will support productivity and become the new norm with additional benefits.
Research on Polyphasic Sleep
In an effort to ease insomnia symptoms and improve sleep, doctors have performed extensive research on polyphasic sleep patterns including the benefits, risks, and if it’s sustainable, long term. The question of whether or not polyphasic sleep can meet your overall sleep needs while also supporting productivity and cognitive function is still unclear.
One concern is that individuals may experience chronic sleep deprivation if their periods of sleep over a 24-hour period aren’t long enough. Risks associated with prolonged lack of sleep include heart attack, stroke, memory loss, compromised immune function, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, fertility issues, and psychiatric disorders. Without sufficient sleep, your brain and body can’t function at normal, healthy levels.
As of this writing, there’s little scientific evidence to suggest that polyphasic sleep is beneficial or safe. Even though some proponents of this sleep schedule claim to experience improved mental clarity and productivity, these may be isolated cases. Although being awake for more hours does provide more time to accomplish things, there’s no evidence to suggest that this time is used wisely or is productive.
For example, if you’re awake for 18 hours a day but during 3 of those hours you feel groggy, disorientated, or drowsy, chances are, you won’t accomplish much more than you would in 16 or even 14 hours. One study performed by students at Harvard Medical School shows that irregular sleep patterns and increased light exposure in college students correspond with lower academic scores compared to those students who maintained a monophasic sleep schedule.
Another study of 400 participants found that polyphasic sleep schedules were linked to increased daytime sleepiness and impaired performance compared to those individuals who followed a monophasic sleep schedule. This same study also suggests that biphasic sleep schedules that included an afternoon nap could be even more beneficial than a monophasic pattern in some people.
Types of Polyphasic Sleep Schedules
Over the last several decades, different variations of polyphasic sleep have emerged. Although all polyphasic sleep schedules involve breaking up your sleep into several smaller chunks of time, there’s no definitive time period you must follow.
If you’re considering this type of sleep schedule, here are the most common types among supporters of the practice.
The Dymaxion sleep schedule involves taking four, 30-minute naps every 6 hours. This equates to just 2 hours of sleep per day – far below the recommended 7 to 9 hours for active adults. Despite the fact that this sleep schedule is both drastic and intense, requiring individuals to be awake for over 20 hours per day, it’s actually the most popular.
The Dymaxion sleep schedule dates back to the 1940s when American architect Buckminster Fuller published a story in Time Magazine claiming to have followed this sleep schedule for two consecutive years. During this time, the architect reported having more time to work, socialize, and perform daily tasks. According to Fuller, he only switched back to a monophasic sleep schedule only after his business partners insisted that he sleep “like other men”.
For those that believe Fuller successfully thrived on just 2 hours of sleep per day for 2 years, it could be thanks to a rare mutation of the short sleep gene, DEC2. People with this rare condition require minimal sleep to feel rested and mentally sharp. Since only 3% of all adults have this mutation, chances are, you require significantly more sleep to function.
To give you a better idea of what a Dymaxion sleep schedule looks like, take a look at the example below.
- Midnight to 12:30 a.m. (sleep)
- 12:30 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. (awake)
- 6:00 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. (sleep)
- 6:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. (awake)
- 12:00 p.m. to 12:30 p.m. (sleep)
- 12:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. (awake)
- 6:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. (sleep)
- 6:30 p.m. to midnight (awake)
As you can see, this schedule is pretty demanding and won’t work for most people who have a difficult time napping or don’t have access to a bed or comfortable sleep environment during the day.
In 1998, thanks to some inspiration from Fuller, amateur scientist Marie Staver developed the Uberman Schedule. Staver was an IT professional plagued by insomnia. Slightly different from the Dymaxion schedule, the Uberman model involves sleeping for 30-minutes, six times a day every four hours, totaling just three hours of sleep per day and 21 hours awake. Another variation includes taking eight naps instead of six and another option adjusts the sleep duration from 30 minutes to just 20.
Some followers of the Uberman schedule claim they feel higher than normal energy levels and enter REM sleep more quickly than if they follow a monophasic sleep pattern. One reason this may be true is that the Uberman sleep schedule helps the body sustain larger concentrations of the organic compound adenosine, a chemical that helps regulate sleep recovery. When you sleep for prolonged periods of time, adenosine levels actually drop.
Unfortunately, because the Uberman sleep schedule doesn’t allow for much more sleep than the Dymaxion schedule (just one hour), it’s highly unsustainable for most people. The founder herself abandoned this sleep schedule after taking a job that wasn’t conducive to around-the-clock napping.
Here’s an example of an Uberman sleep schedule where the sleep durations are 20 minutes long.
- Midnight to 12:20 a.m. (sleep)
- 12:20 a.m. to 4:00 a.m. (awake)
- 4:00 a.m. to 4:20 a.m. (sleep)
- 4:20 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. (awake)
- 8:00 a.m. to 8:20 a.m. (sleep)
- 8:20 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. (awake)
- 12:00 p.m. to 12:20 p.m. (sleep)
- 12:20 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. (awake)
- 4:00 p.m. to 4:20 p.m. (sleep)
- 4:20 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. (awake)
- 8:00 p.m. to 8:20 p.m. (sleep)
- 8:20 p.m. to midnight (awake)
Not all polyphasic sleep schedules are as intense as these first two. The Everyman Schedule, as the name suggests, is much more conducive to everyday life and the standard 9 to 5 work schedule. This sleep pattern allows for a “core” sleep duration of three hours followed by three 20-minute naps during the day. Although individuals can choose their “core” period of sleep, the original structure recommends they sleep from 1:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m.
The Everyman schedule was actually created by Staver after she realized that the Uberman schedule may not suit most people. Although this sleep pattern only affords you four hours of sleep per day, it does recognize the fact that most people thrive by having a single, longer period of sleep rather than multiple periods of shorter rest. A consolidated core period of sleep, especially during the night or very early morning is crucial for maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm.
Here’s a look at what an Everyman schedule might look like.
- Midnight to 3:00 a.m. (sleep)
- 3:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. (awake)
- 8:00 a.m. to 8:20 a.m. (sleep)
- 8:20 a.m. to 1:20 p.m. (awake)
- 1:20 p.m. to 1:40 p.m. (sleep)
- 1:40 p.m. to 6:40 p.m. (awake)
- 6:40 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. (sleep)
- 7:00 p.m. to midnight (awake)
As with any polyphasic sleep schedule, you can adjust these timeframes to meet your lifestyle and individual needs. You can also create your own polyphasic schedule that combines these established ones. Another pattern to consider is the Triphasic sleep schedule which promotes three periods of sleep – one after dusk, one before dawn, and one in the afternoon with the goal of achieving five hours of sleep per 24-hour period.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with different schedules until you find the one that works best for you. Stick to one sleep pattern for at least two weeks to give your mind and body time to adjust before making any significant changes.
The Benefits of Polyphasic Sleep
Despite the fact that these sleep schedules go against what most people accept as “right” or “normal”, they do offer some potential benefits.
This is one of the main reasons people adopt polyphasic sleep schedules. The belief is that the more hours you’re awake, the more productive you will be. While this isn’t always the case, there’s no denying that you’ll have more time to accomplish daily tasks if you’re awake for the majority of the day. The trick is to sleep deeply and well during your periods of rest so that you wake feeling energized instead of drowsy.
Improved Mental Clarity and Memory
Supporters of polyphasic sleep claim they’re more productive and feel more focused, motivated, and equipped to learn and retain important information. The theory is that increased, shorter periods of sleep during the day could positively impact your ability to stay focused and mentally sharp. One reason is that during sleep, your brain works to sort through new information and store and consolidate memories. By taking a brief nap after learning something new, your brain may be better equipped to process the information.
It’s important to note that some evidence suggests that short windows of sleep (30 minutes or less) don’t have a profound impact on mental clarity or performance. For this reason, the 20-minute sleep periods found in both the Uberman and Everyman sleep schedules may not promote increased cognitive ability.
Reduce Insomnia Symptoms
Could it be true that sleeping less could actually improve insomnia symptoms? Some polyphasic sleep supporters seem to think so. By scheduling shorter periods of sleep throughout the day, some people reported falling asleep faster and waking less. Comparatively, if you’re only sleeping for 20 or 30 minutes at a time, there’s much less time for fitful or restless sleep. Others claim feeling so tired after being awake for an extended period of time that they achieved deeper sleep during their rest periods.
Increased Instances of Lucid Dreaming
Lucid dreaming is a phenomenon that involves the ability to achieve consciousness while asleep. In short, it means becoming aware of the fact that you’re dreaming while still actively dreaming. Research suggests that individuals who adopt polyphasic sleep schedules are more likely to experience lucid dreams than those who follow a monophasic schedule.
For those wanting to experience lucid dreams, adopting a polyphasic sleep schedule might help, though it isn’t guaranteed. As of this writing, not much research has been done to support the frequency of lucid dreams and polyphasic sleep.
Conducive to Irregular Work Schedules
Irregular work schedules are becoming increasingly common in today’s fast-paced society. From overnight shifts and on-call work to people juggling multiple jobs, it can be difficult to stick to a standard sleep schedule. That’s what makes polyphasic sleep so appealing for some people.
One study shows that 16% of people currently have a shift work schedule, which means they sleep during “off” hours and are awake at some point during the night. Shift work alone is notorious for disturbing the body’s natural circadian rhythm. It also negatively impacts a person’s cognitive abilities, resulting in more workplace injuries and significantly higher risks.
Those struggling to stay awake during their night shift may benefit from a polyphasic schedule that allows for daytime naps. It’s also possible to adopt this type of schedule during your work week and switch to sleeping for larger periods of time on your days off. Just know that fluctuating and inconsistent sleep schedules could, over time, do more harm than good for your overall well-being.
Side Effects and Risks of Polyphasic Sleep
Given the fact that most polyphasic sleep schedules involve functioning without traditional or adequate amounts of sleep, it’s no surprise that there are numerous side effects and risks associated with this way of life.
Here are some of the most common and serious.
Disrupted Circadian Rhythm
Your circadian rhythm is regulated by consistent sleep patterns. Even though polyphasic sleep is consistent to a degree, it can also be quite random. The body’s natural sleep-wake cycle is much more conducive to a monophasic sleep schedule that follows the rising and setting of the sun. Adopting sleep patterns that disrupt your circadian rhythm could have negative impacts on your health.
These effects include increased illness, slower-than-normal reaction times, fatigue, and cognitive impairment. Shift workers working split shifts and adopting a split sleep schedule reported increased drowsiness on the job and compromised reflexes. Scientists suggest that adopting a polyphasic sleep schedule may increase productivity in the short term, a disrupted circadian rhythm can do more harm than good in the long run.
Delayed Reaction Time
Did you know that drowsy driving is just as dangerous as drunk driving? Studies show that people who are awake for more than 20 hours straight are at the same level of impairment as someone with a blood alcohol level of .08%. This is right on the cusp of the legal limit in most states. Being awake 24 straight hours puts you near a blood alcohol level of .1%.
Nearly 6,000 fatal car crashes occur each year due to drowsy driving. These are just a few statistics that support the theory that chronic sleep deprivation following a polyphasic sleep schedule can cause delayed and reduced reaction times.
When you don’t get adequate sleep, your brain and body don’t respond well or quickly to external stimuli. Reaction times are important for avoiding harmful and dangerous situations. Reduced sleep makes it more difficult to make split-second decisions or recognize and avoid danger.
Chronic Sleep Deprivation
In this case, it simply comes down to math. None of the polyphasic sleep schedules comes even close to providing the CDC’s recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. Countless studies have been done that show the dangerous effects of chronic sleep deprivation on overall health and well-being.
Sleep deprivation is what happens when you don’t receive sufficient sleep for long periods of time. This doesn’t mean a few fitful nights of sleep or staying up late on occasion. Sleep deprivation occurs when you consistently get insufficient amounts of sleep. Not only does sleep deprivation affect your physical health, but your mental health as well. One study showed that women suffering from chronic sleep deprivation were at an increased risk of depression.
Difficult to Sustain Long Term
Even the experts who created some of the most well-known types of polyphasic sleep abandoned their schedules after a certain period of time. That’s because, realistically, these sleep patterns are not sustainable long term.
It’s not practical for working-class individuals, parents, and college students to take naps four, six, or even eight times a day. Once the initial rush of energy subsides, most people are left feeling increasingly groggy, disorientated, and plain exhausted. If you work a traditional 9 to 5 job, have children, or are attending school, you’ll probably thrive best when following a more traditional sleep schedule that gives your body sufficient time to rest, repair, and restore itself.
Is Polyphasic Sleep Right for You?
While the jury is still out on whether or not polyphasic sleep is beneficial, it is a more practical approach for some people than others. If your schedule and lifestyle allow you to follow a monophasic sleep schedule, it’s recommended you do so. The health benefits are vast and this type of schedule aligns best with your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle.
However, if you work shift work, nights, or are on-call, incorporating more frequent periods of shorter sleep throughout the day might work for you. In some cases, it may even make it easier for you to achieve the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep. You can also adopt a polyphasic sleep schedule during certain shifts and switch to something more traditional when the time allows.
Consult with a doctor or healthcare professional before adopting a new sleep schedule, especially more restrictive ones like the Dymaxion and Uberman models. A sleep specialist can also help adjust your circadian rhythm in a balanced and healthy way, void of any unhealthy or drastic measures. It’s also important to make these adjustments slowly over time instead of making major changes too abruptly. Give your body time to ease into this new way of life.
Do Some People Experience Polyphasic Sleep Naturally?
There are certain circadian rhythm disorders that may cause your body to naturally fall into a polyphasic sleep pattern without you even trying or realizing it. For example, an irregular sleep-wake phase disorder common in patients with dementia often results in frequent napping and shorter periods of sleep.
Tips for Trying Polyphasic Sleep
If you’re still curious about polyphasic sleep and want to give it a try, there are a few tips for getting started. For starters, choose a schedule that doesn’t drastically limit your overall hours of sleep. For example, if you’re used to sleeping 8 hours per night, try a schedule that involves one “core” sleeping period of six hours followed by two, 1-hour naps. Over time, you can reduce your “core” period to just five or even four hours and adjust your naps accordingly.
Because most polyphasic sleep schedules are only beneficial for short periods of time, incorporate them periodically and when needed. For example, if you’re starting a new work schedule or taking on overtime. You can also use these sleep schedules to boost productivity and achieve certain objectives. But once you’ve met your goals, it’s best to return to a more traditional sleep schedule like monophasic or biphasic.
Adopt a Sleep Schedule that Meets Your Needs
Consistency is key when choosing a sleep schedule. Examine your needs, lifestyle, and sleep goals. Can you honestly function well on just five or six hours of sleep or do you need at least eight? Speak to a medical professional before drastically changing your sleep patterns and don’t be afraid to experiment with different time structures.
If you’re considering polyphasic sleep as a way to relieve your insomnia, we can help. Somnus Therapy’s online sleep improvement program can help get to the root of your sleep troubles and help you make the necessary changes in a safe and healthy way. Click here to learn more about our methods.