A good sleep pattern is the cornerstone to getting great sleep. A messed up sleep pattern is one of the main causes of insomnia. The key to getting it right is to choose a sleep pattern and stick to it like glue.
Don’t think you’re limited to just one sleep and wake time. With an understanding of the stages of sleep and the sleep cycle, you can sleep multiple times during the day and effectively feel great on as little as 3 hours of sleep per day. It’s possible, but it’s not for the faint hearted! To have any chance of succeeding you need to know the theory behind what you’re doing.
In this article we’ll take a look at the theory behind sleep patterns to see exactly how they work and what creates a great sleep pattern. Then we’ll investigate the range of different sleep patterns that are open to us, from the traditional to the down right insane!
How Sleep Patterns Work
Your sleep pattern is like a timepiece which your body uses to understand when it’s time to sleep and when its time to wake. This works alongside your body’s need to sleep which is governed by two factors:
- How long you have been awake
- The regular timing of your sleep
The timing of your sleep is controlled by something called the circadian body clock located in the depths of your brain. Once your body clock has decided it’s time to rest, it works with other functions in the body to help prepare you for the night of sleep ahead, stopping the various bodily functions associated with being awake. The same goes for when it’s time to wake, where the reverse happens.
You quickly develop a sleep wake cycle from birth. It’s guided by a number of cues to decide if the time is right for sleep. These include daylight, mealtimes and the regular timing of activities carried out at a certain times of the day.
Our bodies naturally adjust our sleep wake cycle to be in line with the day night cycle. This is down to a hormone called melatonin which naturally secretes itself in darkness to promote sleepiness and suppresses itself during daylight to keep you awake.
The invention of electric lighting has completely altered our natural sleep wake cycle. Instead of naturally falling asleep when it gets dark, we find ourselves staying up later and later due to the suppression of melatonin caused by the light. And with big screen TVs finding their way into our bedrooms, which are essentially big boxes of light, people are falling asleep much later.
The natural sleep wake cycle can demonstrated if you go camping. After a few nights in a tent without lighting, you often find yourself going to sleep earlier when the sun sets and getting up earlier in the morning at sunrise. That’s melatonin for you.
Interestingly, even most blind people are affected by daylight and melatonin since although they can’t actually see daylight, the connections from their eyes to their brain still exist to tell their brain if they’re in daylight or darkness.
So, you’ve learnt about how sleep patterns work and how they are naturally aligned to the day night cycle. So how about we throw all that out the window and create our own?! It’s actually not as bizarre as it sounds. There are many advantages to adopting a different sleeping pattern, although there can be just as many drawbacks. It will take plenty of planning and commitment so you have to be careful and know what you’re doing or you’ll have one heck of a messed up sleep pattern!
Monophasic Sleep Pattern
Monophasic sleep is essentially what most people would call a normal sleeping pattern. A person sleeps for around 8 hours per night, variable per person. It’s the most common sleeping pattern and the one most societies have adopted. Nothing abnormal here.
Biphasic Sleep Pattern
Biphasic sleep is where a person sleeps twice per day. Most commonly, it consists of a long sleep during the night with a shorter rest during the day.
While not considered all that common in Britain or America, siestas, a short afternoon nap after lunch, are common in Spain and many Latin American counties.
The siesta takes advantage of what’s called the post lunch dip, a period in the early afternoon after lunch where your body feels a bit more sleepy than usual and can nod off more easily. Siestas are often no more than 30 minutes, any longer and you would go into a deeper stage of sleep which would be hard to wake up from. When done right, a short afternoon nap provides deep refreshment, and can actually have the same effect of a few extra hours sleep.
Alternatively some people adopt a biphasic sleep pattern by having a much longer nap of around 90 minutes. This works because it gives the body time to complete a full cycle of sleep so you would most likely be in either REM or NREM stage 1 so when it’s time to wake up you would feel naturally awake and refreshed.
This is where it gets interesting! A polyphasic sleep pattern consists of multiple sleeps per day, generally ranging from 4 to 6 periods of sleep per day. There are many different combinations of polyphasic sleep patterns, but the most well known are Everyman, Uberman and Dymaxion.
Everyman incorporates a core sleep, usually no longer than 3 hours, giving plenty of time for all the components of NREM and REM sleep to kick in. This is then followed by around three 20 minute naps for refreshment during the day.
Everyman is considered to be one of the easiest, sustainable and flexible polyphasic sleep patterns available. But that’s not to say it is easy! As with any polyphasic sleep pattern, you need a strong amount of dedication and willpower to get through the adjustment period where sleep deprivation is inevitable for the first week or so.
A typical Everyman sleep pattern is a core sleep from 1-4am and 20 minutes naps at 9am, 2pm, and 9pm. These can be adjusted to times that suit you best.
Puredoxyk wrote a blog post sharing her experiences of following the Everyman sleep pattern for six months, which can be found here.
Uberman makes use of 6 naps no longer than 30 minutes (usually 20 minutes) at regular intervals throughout the day. As a result, you can get the sleep you need in just 3 hours.
Uberman is one of the hardest sleep patterns to implement and it’s also one of the least flexible. if you miss a nap, you’re likely to encounter strong sleep deprivation until your next nap. This is a sleep pattern that really stretches the limits, but it is possible and it has been done.
Personal development blogger Steve Pavlina tried out the Uberman sleep pattern for 5 months, documenting the process at each stage. His logs can be viewed here.
A typical Uberman sleep pattern is a 20 minute nap at 2am, 6am, 10am, 2pm, 6pm, and 10pm.
Dymaxion sleep is the sleep pattern Buckminster Fuller supposedly used for a number of years. Here you take a 30 minute nap every 6 hours. That’s just 2 hours sleep per night.
It seems no one other than Buckminster Fuller has achieved success with this sleep pattern. Maybe he was someone who naturally required less sleep than others, or maybe it’s just an urban myth and he didn’t actually sustainably use this sleep pattern. Whatever the reason, Dymaxion is a sleep pattern I can’t recommend!
How polyphasic sleep patterns work
The whole idea of polyphasic sleep patterns isn’t as zany as it sounds. In theory, they work much more efficiently than a regular monophasic sleep pattern.
Deep sleep is essential for refreshment, but with the regular monophasic sleep pattern, we only spend approximately the first 3 hours in deep sleep. The remaining time is spent in the lighter stages of sleep and REM sleep which is far less effective than deep sleep. If we were able to spend more time in deep sleep, avoiding light sleep and REM, we would be able to spend less time sleeping.
This is exactly what polyphasic sleep patterns aim to do; maximise deep sleep and reduce light sleep so that the amount of time spent asleep is reduced. And since we only enter into deep sleep when we first fall asleep, the idea is to fall asleep more often, hence multiple sleep and wake times.
Best Sleep Pattern?
There are many advantages to both biphasic and polyphasic sleep patterns. These include:
- Reducing the number of hours spent asleep per day
- Increase the quality of sleep (more time spent at NREM rather than REM)
- Improved dream recall
- More energy throughout the day
So should everyone shift to polyphasic sleep patterns and reclaim the extra time gained? In the future maybe, but at the moment, people have enough problems with just one sleep/wake time, nevermind 6!
Adjusting your sleep pattern takes strong self discipline. You will likely experience extreme sleep deprivation for a good few weeks while your body adjusts.
You would also have times where you would be awake during the night and asleep during the day, so your body’s melatonin would certainly make things more difficult.
The major killer of alternative sleep patterns is society. Many societies are designed around monophasic sleep patterns and as a result it would be perfectly socially acceptable to work, shop or socialise during your alternative sleep times. It’s also not much fun being awake when everyone else is sleeping. Even if the social factors aren’t enough to put you off, scheduling your whole day around your sleep pattern can be pretty tiring in itself!
The absolute key to all sleep schedules is predictability and regularity each and every day. It only takes one slight change to mess everything up which might take days to put right. Mess up the timing and your sleep pattern is as good as dead.
The rule of thumb is that if you can’t master a normal monophasic sleep pattern, it’s best not to attempt the harder biphasic and polyphasic sleep patterns. It’s not for the inexperienced!
So by all means, pick a sleeping pattern that suits you the best, but be prepared to go through the hell you’ll face trying to adopt it. And most importantly, stick to it!