A polyphasic sleep schedule is one in which you sleep four to six times per day rather than a monophasic sleep schedule that most of us would consider “normal.” The polyphasic (poly- meaning “many” and -phasic meaning “in phases”) pattern is generally comprised of 20- to 30-minute naps regularly spaced throughout the day with or without a consolidated period of core sleep at night.
In modern times, there has been increased interest in using modified sleep-wake schedules to maximize productivity by reducing the total sleep time. The question is whether alterations like a polyphasic sleep are safe and realistic, or are we simply conditioned to believe that a solid eight hours of sleep every night is imperative to maintaining good health and optimal performance?
Concept of Polyphasic Sleep
In the United States and most industrialized countries, we have a pretty singular idea of what a sleep schedule should be. We are taught that you should fall asleep in 10 to 20 minutes, sleep anywhere from seven to nine hours based on age and physical status, barely recall awakenings at night, and wake up feeling refreshed. Anything less places you at risk of sleep deprivation and physical and emotional harm.
But, there are those who argue that these patterns are not fixed in all societies and that some require variations to perform optimally. Certainly, from a historical perspective, the sleep needs of a hunter-gatherer society vary enormously from those of an industrialized society in which daylight work schedules largely dictate sleep routines.
The modern concept of a polyphasic sleep schedule is borne of the conceit that we do not inherently need one sustained period of nighttime sleep in order to function normally.
Moreover, it contends that circadian rhythm—the natural, internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle which repats on each rotation of the Earth—can be adjusted so that a polyphasic pattern is considered normal, routine, and even beneficial.
Until recent years, the body of evidence supporting polyphasic sleep has largely been anecdotal and has often bordered on pseudoscience, with practitioners claiming that they improve productivity and mental function compared to traditional monophasic sleep schedules.
Over the past century, several versions have been added to the lexicon of those who endorse the practice, referred to as the Dymaxion, Uberman, and Everyman schedules.
Developed in the 1920s by Buckminster Fuller, noted American architect and futurist, the Dymaxion schedule is one of the most well-known polyphasic sleep schedules. It is also the most drastic, requiring four 30-minute naps every six hours, for a total of only two hours of sleep per day.
Fuller reportedly slept on this schedule for two years—working for several hours, taking a brief nap, then working again—affording him 22 hours to work, socialize, and perform daily tasks.
Some claim that Fuller was able to succeed due to a rare mutation of the DEC2 gene (also known as the “short sleep gene”). Accordingly, unless you naturally require only a few hours of sleep each night, this schedule is likely to lead to chronic sleep deprivation.
Drawing inspiration from Fuller’s work, Marie Staver, an amateur scientist and IT professional who for years was plagued by insomnia, developed the Uberman schedule in 1998. Named after Friedrich Nietzche’s Ubermensch, this regimented schedule allows for six 30-minute naps every four hours for a total of three hours of sleep per day.
Proponents of the Uberman schedule often claim that they have increased energy levels and are able to enter REM sleep more quickly than with a monophasic pattern of sleep.
It has been suggested that the Uberman schedule does so by sustaining concentrations of adenosine (an organic compound that helps regulate sleep recovery) in the blood rather than letting them plummet during prolonged sleep.
However, these benefits have yet to be scientifically established for one simple reason: most people are unable to stick with the program for very long. Even Staver eventually left the Uberman schedule when she started a job that wasn’t compatible with round-the-clock napping.
For those unable to withstand the rigors of the Dymaxion or Uberman schedules, a modified version called the Everyman schedule allow you a “core” sleep period of three hours (typically from 1:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.) followed by three 20-minute naps throughout the day.
Also created by Staver, the Everyman schedule affords you a total of four hours of sleep per day and recognizes that a certain amount of consolidated core sleep at night is vital to maintaining circadian rhythm. It is also more compatible with a nine-to-five job. For her part, Staver is said to nap under her desk to accommodate her modified sleep schedule.
Given that COVID-19 ushered in the expansion of remote work from home, some people have argued that sleep schedules similar to the Everyman are not only sustainable but provide daytime naps that can help but improve mental clarity and productivity.
What the Current Research Says
It is natural to wonder if a polyphasic sleep schedule can meet your daily sleep needs and optimize daytime productivity. With that said, it is hard to disregard the potential dangers of chronic sleep deprivation, including the risk of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, heart attack, stroke, memory loss, impaired immune function, impaired fertility, and psychiatric disorders.
At present, there is little scientific evidence to support the claims that polyphasic sleep schedules are inherently safe or improve mental clarity and productivity. What they most certainly do is provide the opportunity for greater productivity given the increased number of working hours, but whether more during those hours is achieved has not yet been established.
According to a 2017 study from Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, irregular sleep and light exposure patterns in college students correspond to lower academic scores compared to students who maintain a routine monophasic sleep schedule.
A cross-sectional study conducted in Oman involving 400 volunteers similarly concluded that polyphasic sleep is associated with high levels of daytime sleepiness and impaired performance compared to adults on a monophasic schedule (Interestingly, biphasic schedules characterized by an afternoon “siesta” was seen to afford the most favorable results overall.)
Pros and Cons
Before adopting a modified sleep schedule, it is important to consider some of the potential benefits and risks.
Opportunity for increased productivity
May better accommodate irregular work schedules
Better reflects the circadian desire for afternoon naps
Reduces stress associated with bouts of insomnia
May “train” the brain to enter short-wave sleep (deep sleep) faster
Sustaining adenosine levels may improve mental clarity
May meet your sleep needs if cumulative hours are met
May lead to sleep deprivation
Does not reflect the circadian rhythm for most people
Difficult to sustain in many workplaces
Daytime naps can be easily interrupted
Effects of seasonal daylight pattern, including daylight saving time, may be more jarring
Hormone production influenced by day-night patterns, such as thyroid hormones, may be impaired
Unless strict adherence is assured, daily sleep needs may not be met
A Word From Get Meds Info
Given that every person’s sleep needs are different, it is important to avoid assumptions about polyphasic sleep or be swayed by anecdotal evidence. For people who seem to only need four to five hours of sleep per night, it may be a reasonable option, particularly if additional daytime naps help ensure that the sleep needs are met.
For others, a polyphasic sleep schedule may be nothing more than an experiment with arbitrary goals and potentially serious risks.
If you decide to explore changes in your sleep schedule, do so under the supervision of a physician so that your blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, weight, heart function, and psychological state can be routinely and subjectively monitored.