Your Breakthrough Sleep Program Is a Sham
The idea is that one can perform just as well—mentally and physically—on three hours of sleep apportioned in six equal-sized naps taken throughout the day. And it's hogwash.
If the idea of doing more on less sleep hasn’t memed its way into your head via Facebook or Medium, then it’s a notion most of us have dreamed about: If only I didn’t have to spend all that time sleeping, I could get so much more done.
It’s a fantasy some have been holding on to since about 2000, when the Ubermann Sleep Schedule first appeared on the web. The idea is that one can perform just as well—mentally and physically—on three hours of sleep apportioned in six equal-sized naps taken throughout the day. The thinking goes that you squeeze down (or out) the physiologically less important stages of sleep while retraining your body to enter into the more crucial (REM) stages.
Despite the fact that the blog supposedly touting the Ubermann sleep diet ended with the admission that “Uberman’s sleep schedule is a potentially dangerous way to increase your waking hours,” future technopreneurs and aspiring superathletes seized on it as if it were Red Bull’s secret elixir. Since then, the Uberman has been rejiggered, by chronobiologist Claudio Stampi (profiled by Tim Zimmerman in Outside April 2005), as polyphasic sleep.
While monophasic sleep is the dullard’s night of seven to nine hours sleeping straight through, biphasic consists of parsing out your sandman hours into two periods over a 24-hour day (usually, five to six hours of sleep with a 90-minute or 20-minute nap later in the day). This latter method was touted by social media marketer Andrew Torba last November in his post on medium.com titled, “The ‘Getting Shit Done’ Sleep Cycle: Can You Be Productive on 4-6 Hours of Sleep?“
Despite breathlessly citing the story of a 22-year-old Russian project manager who claims he’s mastered a four-and-a-half-hour-a-day sleep schedule the past two years, Torba was also careful to differentiate his biphasic “getting shit done” cycle from the Russian’s polyphasic one. (The first red flag in Torba’s post? Identifying himself in his bio as a bitcoiner. Uh-oh.)
“Biphasic sleep is OK,” says Dr. W. Christopher Winter, founder of Virgina’s Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine, and a sleep researcher and triathlete. “But the idea that people claiming they can get three or four hours of sleep and then make up the rest with these 20- or 30-minutes naps throughout the rest of the day? That’s absurd.”
Dr. Winter, who is currently the sleep medicine specialist for the Oklahoma City Thunder and who has done numerous studies on the sleep patterns of Major League Baseball players and other professional athletes, also acknowledges that there are some people who are more acclimated to interrupted sleep or biphasic schedules (such as doctors and pro basketball players). But it’s not for everyone: “We want to caution people about breaking up their sleep into these multiple phases.”
Dr. Winter also points out that while there have been studies on breaking up the circadian rhythm into multiple blocks over a 24-hour period, there has as yet been no research on the long-term effects of this polyphasic sleep pattern.
Nevertheless, polyphasic contrarian Piotr Wozniak, inventor of the SuperMemo (memory-improving) software program, has backhandedly lauded the internet’s polyphasic community. “Polyphasic bloggers contribute to our understanding of sleep,” Wozniak commented on his supermemo.com site. “No researcher could ethically subject that many individuals to the mental torture of polyphasic schedule.” Besides, he adds, tongue still in cheek, “All great polyphasic sleepers are dead.”
It’s a position with which Dr. Winter would concur. “You read about these polyphasic blogs and I absolutely don’t believe them,” he says. “It’s not effective. It’s a faddish thing.”