People use many tips and tricks to improve their sleep, but altering the sleep cycle itself is one of the most radical. You can attempt to adapt to many sleep cycles. Of these, the polyphasic sleep cycle is possibly the most challenging. Those who successfully adapt to polyphasic sleep, however, claim that the benefits are well worth the adjustment period. What follows is a brief guide to how this sleep cycle adjustment works.
Understanding Sleep Cycles
Image via Flickr by Rachel Calamusa
As you sleep, you go through two basic cycles known as rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM). REM sleep is the important cycle, where your body gets the most benefit from sleeping. REM sleep has just one stage, and attaining REM sleep is the entire goal of your sleep period.
NREM sleep has four stages. The first two prepare your body for sleep, and the last two are phases of deep sleep that you progress through on the way to attaining REM sleep. The body repairs and regenerates during the deep sleep stages as well as during REM sleep.
In a typical period of sleep, the body enters the REM sleep cycle after about 90 minutes. This first cycle is short and lasts about 10 minutes. Your body will cycle in and out of REM sleep throughout the night with each successive period of REM sleep lasting a little longer. You may attain as much as an hour of REM sleep toward the end of the night. In total, you spend only about 20 percent of the night in REM sleep.
How the Polyphasic Sleep Cycle Works
Most Americans have a monophasic sleep cycle, which means they sleep once in a 24-hour period. In countries like Spain where the afternoon siesta is popular, some people have a biphasic sleep cycle, with two regular periods of sleep in a 24- hour period. Polyphasic sleep is when you sleep multiple times throughout the day. Infants, just for a basis of comparison, practice polyphasic sleep.
When discussing polyphasic sleep, most people are referring to the Uberman sleep schedule. In this polyphasic sleep cycle, you rest for 20 minutes at a time with naps evenly spaced four hours apart. In a 24 hours day, this schedule gives you a total of two hours of sleep, instead of the six to eight hours most people aim to get overnight.
Benefits of the Polyphasic Sleep Cycle
The goal of the polyphasic sleep cycle is to force the body into a state of REM sleep immediately. You skip over the NREM sleep stage completely. This is done by essentially exhausting the body to the point where it eliminates stages one through four. Once you’ve adjusted to polyphasic sleep, you get about the same amount of REM sleep as a monophasic or biphasic sleeper.
Since you’re streamlining your sleep routine to skip the sleep stages that aren’t as beneficial for the body, you’re able to eliminate hours of inefficient sleep time. By sleeping two hours a day instead of eight, you will literally add years to your waking life. If you begin polyphasic sleep at the age of 20, you will gain 11 years of wakefulness over the course of the average Western lifespan.
Adapting to Polyphasic Sleep
The most difficult part of incorporating polyphasic sleep into your life is simply adapting to it in the first place. It can take two to three weeks to adapt to this sleep cycle completely. During this time, you may feel tired, disoriented, and uncomfortable.
When you’re first incorporating polyphasic sleep into your life, you must stick to a rigid schedule. Delaying a nap for even a few minutes will throw your entire schedule off. You must never oversleep past the prescribed 20-minute period. Oversleeping is extremely tempting as you’re adjusting to polyphasic sleep, but doing so will ruin any progress you’ve made toward adjusting to this sleep cycle, and it can set you back significantly.
If you want to start using a polyphasic sleep cycle, it’s best to start when you’re on vacation from work so your performance will not suffer as your body adjusts. Clear your calendar of other engagements so you can rigidly adhere to your sleep schedule. If you must run errands, do them immediately after a nap so you’re home in plenty of time for your next period of sleep.
You’ll face many obstacles in your first few weeks as a polyphasic sleeper. If you choose to use this type of sleep cycle, you may need to make several changes to your lifestyle. It’s important to focus on healthy living habits. Drink plenty of water and avoid sugary drinks or caffeinated beverages. These will make it more difficult to reach REM sleep during your naps. Since you’re napping so often, you won’t have time for the effects of the sugar or caffeine to fully wear off.
Pay attention to your diet and consider keeping a food journal. In this journal, list everything you eat and drink throughout the day and note how successful your naps are. Over time, this will help you identify any items that disrupt your sleep. You should eliminate these from your diet. Common favorites like chocolate contain both sugar and caffeine so you may have to avoid this dessert. Many headache medicines contain caffeine too, and they may be problematic for your adjustment.
Some definitions of polyphasic sleep allow for periodic naps of any length throughout the day. You may also choose to experiment with a polyphasic sleep cycle with 30- or 45-minute naps and more or less time in between them. Polyphasic sleep works best when you stick to a rigid schedule.
Depending on your work schedule, this can present a major challenge. Many people who have given up polyphasic sleep said this was their primary reason for doing so. Most professionals simply don’t adhere to this schedule, so scheduling meetings around polyphasic sleep is hard.
If you’re looking for a radical new way to approach sleep, a polyphasic sleep cycle could offer the changes you’re seeking. You’ll increase your waking time to an impressive 22 hours each day, allowing for improved productivity and more efficient REM sleep. Assuming you’re willing to undergo the (admittedly difficult) adjustment period, this type of sleep cycle could yield incredible benefits for your life and career.
Polyphasic Sleep Schedule - The How, Benefits, Adapting, and Overcoming Obstacles. by Jon Fritz