Can You Cheat Sleep? Only in Your Dreams

Credit: Dreamstime (Image credit: Dreamstime)

Some folks will do anything to cheat sleep. And some techniques to keep from dozing are highly recommended, such as avoiding Rob Schneider films or trashing your John Tesh CDs.

Somewhere between sanity and insomnia lies polyphasic sleep, now gaining devotees in the blogosphere. They take six 25-minute naps during the day and maybe an hour of sleep at night.

Once you make it through the acknowledged grueling two-week adjustment period, during which you just feel like, well, sleeping, you supposedly enter into a euphoria defined by more energy, more concentration and more time to live life.

Although no studies have been performed on the safety or benefits of polyphasic sleep, everything we know about sleep — and even the language of the bloggers themselves—suggest that the technique can work only in your dreams.

Keep dreaming

Most of us are monophasic sleepers, sleeping in one long stretch at night.

Biologically, however, we are a biphasic species. EEGs reveal how the brain enters into a lengthy sleep mode a night and then has a midday dip in alertness. The rest of the body follows, with organs and various body functions, down to the cellular level, showing a biphasic activity cycle. Many societies cater to this need with a siesta.

Admittedly, little is known about why animals sleep, or why the healthy range of human sleep for adults can be anywhere between five and nine hours a day.

There seems to be no biological support, however, that polyphasic sleep can be healthy or that this was the natural sleep pattern of our cave-dwelling ancestors to remain vigilant against predators at night, as some polyphasic proponents suggest.

Why we sleep

One leading theory of why we sleep, as opposed to merely needing to rest, is that sleep allows the brain to process information gathered during the day and place some of it into deep memory. Without question, cognitive skills diminish when the body is sleep deprived.

Human sleep comes in 90-minute cycles, comprising approximately 65 minutes of non-REM sleep, 20 minutes of REM, and another five minutes of a transitional non-REM. Most of us get four or five cycles each night. REM sleep is considered the most restful, and studies show that disruption of REM as opposed to the other cycles causes the worse sleep deprivation.

The core theory behind polyphasic sleep is that, by enduring a two-week period of sleep deprivation, you can enter a phase in which napping takes you straight into REM. You eliminate the so-called unnecessary aspects of sleep.

Some sleep better than none

Polyphasic sleep can be helpful in some cases. Claudio Stampi, a sleep expert based in Boston, is the leading researcher for polyphasic sleep and is focused mostly on how yachtsman, soldiers or others who need to stay awake can best cheat sleep.

Stampi has found that taking six short naps is more useful than going several days on just a few hours sleep. He does not recommend, nor do his studies support the notion, that healthy people leading normal lives should adopt polyphasic sleep as a lifestyle to gain more waking hours.

Nevertheless, polyphasic sleep advocates point to Stampi's work as justification for experimenting with less sleep.

Sleep blogs

Sleep blogs offer various polyphasic recipes, with the most rigorous being just six 20-minute naps. Validating bloggers' claims can be difficult, but assuming they have no reason to lie and that they aren't hallucinating from lack of sleep, many bloggers actually reveal how polyphasic sleep isn't so great.

For example, what would you do with more wakeful hours? These bloggers stay awake by exercising or socializing; no one reads more books, solves complicated puzzles or learns a language, likely because they can't. These tasks are too taxing for the sleep-deprived mind.

Most bloggers return to normal sleep after six months or so largely out of boredom, albeit believing they've accomplished a mission. So much for euphoria. The extra hours weren't productive. Bloggers also supply a long list of famous polyphasic sleepers, such as Thomas Edison, but likely these people were merely the napping biphasic types.

While it is perhaps fun to experiment with "living longer" by virtue of spending more of life awake, polyphasic sleep could backfire. This month, the World Health Organization placed nightshift work as a probable human carcinogen; there's something about getting the sleep rhythm out of whack that causes cancer, heart diseases, obesity and other ills.

Polyphasic sleep is a tempting idea but best put to rest.

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books “Bad Medicine” and “Food At Work.” Got a question about Bad Medicine? Email Wanjek. If it’s really bad, he just might answer it in a future column. Bad Medicine appears each Tuesday on LiveScience.

Christopher Wanjek
Live Science Contributor

Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.