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Polyphasic Sleep: Is Sleeping in Short Bursts a Healthier Sleep Pattern?


Polyphasic sleep - Dr. Axe

There are many reasons why we can’t get a good night’s sleep or achieve what we view to be our ideal sleep schedule. What is the answer? Is there more than one right way to catch some zzz’s?

Supporters of the trending polyphasic sleep schedule, such as the uberman sleep schedule, say that briefer periods of slumber spread out throughout the day and night may be just as healthy and require less time dedicated to our body’s need to rest. But is this change to the normal sleep cycle healthy? Advocates claim benefits may include better cognitive function, while experts warn this sleep pattern can lead to sleep deprivation and a wide array of negative health effects.

According to the CDC, a healthy adult should get seven hours of sleep each night at the very least. You’ll often hear eight to 10 hours as a more ideal amount. Research has revealed the sleep patterns of our ancestors didn’t include this much sleep, so is it possible we don’t require so much? Let’s take a closer look.

What Is Polyphasic Sleep?

They say that Einstein was a monophasic sleeper and banked 10 hours of sleep (more than average) every night. Another “great,” Leonard Da Vinci, was known for a polyphasic sleep process which included multiple 20 minute power naps adding up to about five hours of sleep total each day.

What is polyphasic sleep? Polyphasic sleepers divide their sleeping up into segments, which typically results in anywhere from two hours to seven hours of sleep total in a 24-hour period. This division of rest can be done in a number of ways. For example, one method of polyphasic sleep involves a longer period of sleep plus several shorter naps.

Proponents of polyphasic sleep say you can enter REM sleep faster, which is why they say it can be a healthy way to accomplish the need for rest while spending less minutes asleep each day.

Types of Sleep Patterns (Monophasic vs. Biphasic vs. Polyphasic)

Many people are used to a standard monophasic sleep pattern where they get all of their sleep during the nighttime, sleeping in occasionally.

There are several types of sleep patterns, including:

  • Monophasic — This common sleep pattern means you sleep once per day, and the sleep cycle length is typically from six to nine hours.
  • Biphasic — As the name suggests, this is a two-phase sleep pattern with each sleep phase being about three to four hours in length. It’s also called the “siesta sleeping pattern.” So you have a first and second sleep period each day.
  • Polyphasic — Polyphasic sleep is a sleep pattern with more than two sleep intervals spread out throughout a 24-hour period. Typically, this means four to six periods of rest total. You can use a polyphasic sleep calculator online to calculate your total amount of sleep or to plan out a sleep schedule. This multi-interval sleep pattern can be further broken down into more categories, including:
    • Uberman: The uberman sleep schedule includes just three hours of sleep each day, which is accomplished by taking six 30-minute naps throughout the day.
    • Everyman: These polyphasic sleepers take one three-hour rest along with around three 20-minute naps during a 24-hour period.
    • Dymaxion: Overall, the dymaxion schedule (invented by Richard Buckminster Fuller) results in only two hours of sleep per day by taking a 30 minute nap every six hours.

Should You Try It? (Potential Benefits)

People who follow polyphasic sleep cycles say a huge benefit is having more time in their day to get things done. With more time awake can come more productivity, so this benefit is possible. Less sleep does equate to more potential time to accomplish tasks and be more productive, but the time is only going to be productive if you’re functioning well and not feeling sleepy.

What are the potential benefits of a polyphasic sleep schedule? In addition to increased productivity, proponents of the polyphasic sleep say that it can:

  • Improve energy levels and alertness
  • Lead to a faster entrance into REM sleep (deep sleep) as a result of sleep deprivation
  • Satisfy the afternoon nap need that many people experience (If this is the main goal, then biphasic sleep can accomplish this as well.)
  • Help people to cope with an abnormal sleep-work schedule, such as those who work night shifts
  • Be a useful sleep pattern for people with delayed sleep phase syndrome

Polyphasic sleep patterns have not been well studied long-term to date, so a lot of potential benefits are anecdotal. Sleep needs do vary on an individual basis. If you can’t get a great night’s sleep in one interval, you don’t have to turn to polyphasic sleeping. You may just want to consider fitting in a power nap at some point in your day. Naps can be extremely helpful.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, “While naps do not necessarily make up for inadequate or poor quality nighttime sleep, a short nap of 20–30 minutes can help to improve mood, alertness and performance.”

Research published in 2010 also points toward the benefits of naps that are not more than 30 minutes long. Brief naps have been linked to an increased level of alertness.

Risks and Side Effects

When you sleep in fragments, it can often be challenging to have those blocks of sleep add up to a desirable amount of sleep overall. A huge potential risk of following a polyphasic sleep schedule is sleep deprivation.

Sleep deprivation as a result of polyphasic sleep can lead to a number of unwanted side effects, including:

  • Hormone disruption
  • Blood sugar fluctuations
  • Appetite changes
  • Memory issues
  • Increased likelihood for accidents
  • Cognitive impairment

Getting less than seven hours of sleep per night has also been linked to an increased risk for chronic diseases like diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, mood disorders and alcohol abuse. Insufficient sleep is also associated with impaired immune function and lowered life expectancy.

Sleeping all day (rather than night) or sleeping periodically throughout the day is also not in line with our natural circadian rhythms.

A pattern of polyphasic sleep for a teenager or younger child is definitely not recommended. Children and adolescents need significantly more sleep than adults on a daily basis. It’s also been found that the release of growth hormone is greatly suppressed during polyphasic sleep.

Talk to your doctor if you’re interested in polyphasic sleep because you’re struggling with insomnia or other sleep concerns. You may also want to consider natural sleep aids.

Final Thoughts

Many of us view a “normal sleep cycle” as one interval of sleep during the night, which is considered a monophasic sleep pattern. There are two other options of sleep patterns that include divided or segmented periods of rest. One is biphasic sleep, which includes two sleep intervals. There’s also polyphasic sleep cycles or sleeping for more than two periods of time during a 24-hour period.

There are polyphasic sleep pros and cons, but the potential negative health effects seem to outweigh any potential gains from this multi-phase sleep pattern. At this point, long-term research is lacking.

If for one reason or another you want to consider going away from a traditional monophasic sleep pattern, a biphasic sleep pattern is a less extreme option than polyphasic sleep. But keep in mind, biphasic sleep usually provides six or seven hours of sleep total, rather than the conventionally recommended seven to nine of monophasic sleeping. You may want to consider sticking to a monophasic schedule and adding a power nap.

If you’re interested in trying polyphasic sleep cycles, discuss this with your healthcare provider first.

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