Common Myths About Polyphasic Sleep

Does polyphasic sleep really work? Is it safe? Let's take a closer look at the top three common polyphasic sleep myths.

By: Ashton Boiar

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More energy, focus, and time each day—polyphasic sleeping, the practice of sleeping for just a few short intervals a day, promises both physical and mental benefits. Although most sleepers are monophasic (they sleep just once a day), many hyper-productive people throughout history, including Da Vinci, Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin, have followed their own unique polyphasic schedules.

That said, just because the polyphasic sleep schedule worked for Einstein, doesn’t mean it’ll work for everyone. But, if you’re curious to try it out, it’s important to know polyphasic facts from fiction. So, let’s examine the top three polyphasic sleep common myths and learn more about this uncommon sleep routine.

True or False: Polyphasic Sleepers Sleep Only a Few Hours Each Day.

False. Polyphasic sleepers never sleep more than a couple of hours each day—at least, that’s a common myth. While many polyphasic sleepers do aim to reduce the amount of time they’re spending in bed, it’s not a requirement at all. Polyphasic sleeping simply refers to how many times you sleep each day, not how many hours you sleep.

Why Do People Polysleep?

For some polyphasic sleepers, this sleep routine can be a great resource for maximizing their waking time and, subsequently, productivity. But, polyphasic sleeping has other uses too. For individuals facing sleep disorders such as narcolepsy, research indicates that taking routine and brief daytime naps (a polyphasic schedule) can help boost energy levels. 

The OG Polysleepers

Lastly, whether you’re practicing a polyphasic schedule to sleep less or to sleep better, you may find that polyphasic sleep just feels natural—this isn’t a coincidence. In fact, research suggests that preindustrial people typically divided their nightly sleep around an hour of wakefulness. During this midnight hour, it was typical for people to read, pray, and socialize before returning to their beds again.

So, although modern polyphasic sleepers are less common, the practice actually isn’t as unusual or extreme as you might think.

True or False: A Polyphasic Schedule Is Easy to Start.

False. This is another common myth. The human body may find polyphasic sleep natural, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easy—not at first. Since your sleep schedule is deeply connected to all parts of your body, radically changing your routine is a difficult and long process. For some individuals, this process of switching from monophasic to polyphasic sleep can take weeks or even months.

Your Circadian Rhythm

Changing your circadian rhythm is the biggest hurdle to making the switch. If you’re an average eight-hour sleeper, then your body will still continue to follow that schedule, even if you don’t plan to. Specifically, your body temperature will be higher during the day, and you’ll feel more alert too, which can make daytime napping difficult. 

On the other hand, during the night, your body will continue to release hormones that slow down your organs and brain, making it a fight to not fall asleep.

Your Brain in Zombie Mode

In the short term, working against your body’s circadian rhythm can result in grogginess, decreased concentration (zombie mode), irregularities in your appetite, and decreased sex drive. Although most of these symptoms fall under the short-term side effects of sleep deprivation, improper polyphasic sleeping can contribute to metabolic and mental health issues, higher blood pressure, and diabetes.

True or False: Polyphasic Sleeping is Right For Everyone

Well, it depends. Unfortunately, polyphasic sleep schedules don’t come with guaranteed success, nor will every kind of polyphasic routine work for everyone. The ideal sleep schedule for anyone (polyphasic or not) depends on a variety of health and lifestyle factors. That said, there are still a variety of polyphasic schedules to choose from.

Uberman vs. Siesta

Some individuals may thrive under an extreme polyphasic routine, such as the Uberman Sleep (20 minute naps six times a day), while other sleepers may prefer the more widespread and manageable polyphasic practice of sleeping through the night and taking a siesta (a brief afternoon nap, usually right after lunch).

Sleep Totals

Regardless of the sleep plan you choose, it’s important to consider the unique relationship between your sleep and lifestyle factors including health, your age, and your daily schedule. For example, older adults need significantly less sleep each day than teenagers; an average teenager needs at least seven hours of daily sleep, while an average adult over 65 can get by on five.

Final Polyphasic Facts

Successfully trying a polyphasic schedule is challenging, and it depends a lot on your individual health and circumstances. But, there are several lifestyle adaptations you can make as well:

Routine: Polysleepers who successfully transition from a monophasic routine do so with a strict routine and often with the help of others. If you plan on trying a polyphasic schedule, try to pick nap times that work for you every day and that you can easily follow. Sleepers who develop irregular sleeping patterns risk developing higher blood pressure, stress levels, and sleep apnea.

Caffeine: It’s no secret that caffeine, especially too much of it and too close to bedtime, can keep you restless or even anxious. However, keeping yourself decaffeinated doesn’t just mean staying away from coffee and energy drinks. 

  • Other surprisingly caffeine-high drinks include cocoa beverages (hot chocolate, chocolate milk, etc.) and sodas. Even drinks labeled “decaf” can have up to 13 milligrams of caffeine. Some of your favorite pre-nap snacks may be sabotaging your sleep too: chocolate, ice cream, and even breakfast cereal contain caffeine too.

Alcohol: If you’re having trouble sleeping, alcohol can be a tempting option to help you relax. And, although alcohol will help you fall asleep quicker, it reduces your quality of sleep and prevents you from reaching the deepest levels of rest. Drinking before your nap will prevent your body from entering REM sleep and feeling refreshed later.

Sources

Cleveland Clinic. (2022). Here’s What Happens If You Don’t Get Enough Sleep. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/happens-body-dont-get-enough-sleep

Ekirch, A. (2016) Segmented Sleep in Preindustrial Societies. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4763365/

National Sleep Foundation (2020). How Many Hours of Sleep Do You Really Need? https://www.thensf.org/how-many-hours-of-sleep-do-you-really-need/

Samson, D. (2021). The Human Sleep Paradox: The Unexpected Sleeping Habits of Homo Sapien. https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/10.1146/annurev-anthro-010220-075523

Takahashi, M. (2003). The Role of Prescribed Napping in Sleep Medicine. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12927122/

Wehr, T. (1992). In Short Photoperiods, Human Sleep is Biphasic. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2869.1992.tb00019.x/abstract