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Effects of Polyphasic Sleep on Health

This is the raw text of a paper I wrote for my persuasive writing class. I intend to go back and edit it to fit a blog, but for now I’m getting extra credit by “submitting” it to my intended audience. Enjoy!

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Health Concerns with Uberman Sleep

If someone lives for 75 years, they will be unconscious for 25 of them. That’s my entire life until now completely wiped away, unused. Family, school, work, writing, all of you, none of it happened. That is the cost of sleeping eight hours per day. So I cut my sleep to two hours, trying to milk my short life for all it’s worth. Many of you, upon hearing this, argued violently against it, primarily citing health concerns—physical and social. Because you’re genuinely concerned, I’ve taken it seriously and explored how this sleep style impacts my health.

 Dozens of people have told me, “When I get less than seven hours, I feel like crap!” From experience, you know that getting too little sleep at night causes sleep deprivation: fatigue, shorter attention span, drowsiness, irritability, depression, etc. Sooner or later you pay the price for short sleep. Your experience insists a person can’t survive on two hours.

My own experience, and the experiences of others, actually says the opposite. I’m getting two hours of sleep in the form of six twenty-minute naps evenly spaced throughout the day (called an “Uberman” sleep schedule). Before my body adjusted to the schedule, I became severely sleep deprived, but within five days my sleep became restful. The sleep deprivation passed, and now I feel great: rested, alert, and happy. Steve Pavlina, a personal development coach, lived on Uberman sleep for six months and recorded in his blog that he felt fine—no sleep deprivation after a week (“Day 7” Par. 2). He stated that he could have easily maintained it indefinitely (“The Return to Monophasic” Par. 2). A friend of mine slept the same schedule for two years before his mission. Dozens of bloggers and online forums attest to the fact that Uberman sleep can be maintained indefinitely without suffering ongoing sleep deprivation or having a “day of reckoning” for lost sleep.

“But,” you protest, “studies show that you need eight hours of sleep!” Yes, they do, but almost every sleep study ever done focuses on monophasic (overnight) or biphasic (overnight + a nap) sleep. They focus on what the body needs to keep us running for 16+ hours straight. As near as I can find, nobody has run a controlled, replicated[1] study on polyphasic (multiple naps) sleep. Because existing studies focus on monophasic sleep, their findings may not apply here.

Some studies do hint at why Uberman sleep adequately rests the intrepid few who live it. The first few days on Uberman sleep, your body isn’t accustomed to getting REM (dreaming) sleep during naps. Without REM sleep, you quickly become severely sleep deprived. A recent study indicates that when a person is even mildly sleep deprived, their body alters its sleep pattern, demanding a higher percentage of REM sleep when it can get it. Quality of sleep also improved (Elmenhorst et al, 840). Another study states that, “if…partial sleep deprivation is continued, REM sleep begins to occur earlier in the sleep period…” (Webb and Agnew 367). After several sleep-deprived days of Uberman naps, I began to dream (REM sleep) during naps. Twenty-minute naps felt like an hour, and I woke up refreshed, alert, and happy. From there, the initial sleep deprivation began to dissipate.

Not all sleep is created equal. Your body drifts through four sleep phases, and normally makes gradual transitions (called “latency”) between them. In monophasic sleep, your body spends most of its time in non-REM (non-dreaming) sleep. All sleep phases are important, but REM sleep is universally considered the most restorative and most important to cognitive function.

One study found that if people are deprived of REM sleep, the body adjusted to make up the difference in subsequent sleep, putting a priority on REM sleep. In addition, when the body is sufficiently sleep deprived, it makes the other, non-REM sleep phases more powerful, contributing to a general sense of being well-rested, despite working off sleep deprivation. Latency—time wasted between sleep phases—was also reduced (Beersma et al 114-5). This means that the body has the potential to cut down the time requirements of sleep while still rejuvenating you. Because people on Uberman sleep report feeling normal and rested, it is reasonable to assume that the body has optimized and intensified sleep time to fulfill its rest requirements.

I don’t feel sleep deprived. Ever. Unlike monophasic sleepers, when I start to feel tired, I sleep. An interesting study shows that after short sleep, normal naps of just 10-20 minutes profoundly improve alertness, energy, and cognitive function for nearly three hours. (Brooks and Lack). I don’t need to get enough sleep to push through 16+ hours. If I can get enough sleep to feel normal for four hours, that’s all I need. Steve Pavlina reported that after a few days he started awaking from his naps before his alarm went off, a sign of being fully-rested not sleep-deprived (“Day 4” Par. 6).

What are the long-term health implications of Uberman sleep? No studies have been done, so nobody knows. It is reasonable to assume that if someone feels rested and isn’t suffering immediate evidence of sleep deprivation that they are shouldn’t suffer long-term consequences. One of you said that studies show that getting less than eight hours of sleep will reduces life expectancy. Even if, despite leaving me rested and happy, it does shorten my life by ten years, I will actually end up netting five years of “awake” time over a monophasic lifestyle[2]. From my perspective, “life” only counts if you’re awake.

A few of you have worried about my social health: is it depressing to be the alone all night? For me, it’s fine. I’m an introvert, so the “alone time” reenergizes me rather than leaving me depressed. I spend my nights doing homework so I can spend daylight hours with friends, which actually gives me more social time. It’s not for everyone, but Uberman sleep is great for my social life.

By all appearances, Uberman sleep shouldn’t be damaging my health because it leaves me feeling fully rested, alert, and happy. It’s incredible that six twenty-minute naps can keep me fully-rested, but it does. Somebody should gather data on the long-term effects, but until then, I feel satisfied with the assumption that whatever gets me rested keeps me healthy. I’m going to enjoy living life with my eyes wide open.

  

Works Cited:

  

Beersma, D.G.M. et al. “REM sleep deprivation during 5 hours leads to immediate REM sleep rebound and to suppression of non-REM sleep intensity.” In Electroencephalography and clinical Neurophysiology, 1990, 76: 114-122.

 Brooks, Amber and Leon Lack. “A Brief Afternoon Nap Following Nocturnal Sleep Restriction: Which Nap Duration is Most Recuperative?” Sleep. Vol 29, Nov. 6, 2006. 831-840.

 Elmenhorst, Eva-Maria et al. “Partial Sleep Deprivation: Impact on the architecture and quality of sleep.” Sleep Medicine. Issue 9. Dec 2008. 840-850. Accessed via http://Elsevier.com/locate/sleep

 Pavlina, Steve. “Day 7”. Polyphasic Sleep Log. 27 Oct 2005. 4 Mar 2009. <http://www.stevepavlina.com/blog/2005/10/polyphasic-sleep-log-day-7/ >

—–     “Day 4”. Polyphasic Sleep Log. 24 Oct 2005. 4 Mar 2009. <http://www.stevepavlina.com/blog/2005/10/polyphasic-sleep-log-day-4/>

—–     “The Return to Monophasic”. Polyphasic Sleep Log. 12 Apr 2006. 4 Mar 2009. <http://www.stevepavlina.com/blog/2006/04/polyphasic-sleep-the-return-to-monophasic/>

 Webb, W. B. and H. W. Agnew, Jr. “The Effects of Subsequent Sleep on Acute Restriction of Sleep Length.” Pyschophyiology. 1975, Vol 12, No. 4. 367-75.


[1] “Replication” means two or more test subjects and is a requirement for statistically significant results.

[2] Uberman sleep gives 6 extra hours per day. Multiply by 365 days per year, stretched across the next 40 years gets me an extra 87600 hours of awake time: the equivalent of 15 “waking” years on monophasic sleep.

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3 comments

  1. Excellent essay. Thank you for it.


    • Something else, which I didn’t mention in here:
      My sister found studies that indicated sleep does not influence cellular health. She dug pretty deep and found a lot of studies which indicate that the only effects of sleep deprivation are cognitive, meaning that the only thing your sleep needs to accomplish is to restore you cognitive function.

      Also, she found a study indicating that if someone gets short sleep for a few nights (7 hours instead of 8) it still reduces their cognitive function, but their body doesn’t recover when they go back to normal sleep. However, if they get 5 or fewer hours of sleep, going back to a normal sleep schedule restores cognitive function.

      One doctor DID study a man on polyphasic sleep (a Swiss artist). As the man transitioned into polyphasic sleep, his cognitive scores dropped. After ~5 days one score returned to higher than baseline (before polyphasic sleep). The other remained below until at 14 days the subject was allowed to crash for 10 hours. After the crash he continued on the naps, but BOTH cognitive scores had returned to higher-than-baseline. Unfortunately, the study focused on a 30-minute nap instead of a 20-minute nap, so by the end of the 2-month experiment they were having trouble getting the guy to wake up (though he was fine when they did rouse him). A study published only last Dec finally discovered that optimal nap length is between 10 and 20 minutes, that 30-minute naps actually make you feel MORE tired when you awake.


  2. Good Job! It was a good reading 😉



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