By Vanessa Santilli
Aria Ilyad trembled. He was weak, had a high temperature and his body shook involuntarily.
On a dare from his sleep physiology professor, the University of Toronto grad student was trying polyphasic sleeping — napping in blocks instead of sleeping all at once.
He struggled to adjust. Sleeping for 20 to 30 minutes every four hours — only two hours each 24 hour period — was a far cry from the recommended eight hours.
His appetite went awry. There were times when he would eat very little and others when he would binge. In his fight to stay awake, whole moments of his life were erased from his memory.
“The first two weeks are grueling,” Ilyad said. “After 10 days you really want to give up. You want to give up but it’s just knowing that it’s a temporary phase. It’s almost like when you’re running and you get cramps but you know that if you run just two more minutes, the cramps are going to go away. It’s that kind of feeling.”
But once the transition phase ended and his body adjusted to his new sleep cycle, he felt great — if not better than before. Now he hasn’t had a full night’s sleep in two years.
The preferred sleep routine of Leonardo Da Vinci, Napoleon Bonaparte and Thomas Edison, polyphasic sleep is used as the ultimate way to increase productivity. Done to the extreme, a polyphasic sleeper can spend 22 hours a day functioning at full capacity. As the end-of-term crunch sets in, some stressed students looking to fend off the sandman turn to polyphasic sleep to help them cope. While experts are wary of the safety of this method of sleep, polyphasic sleepers like Ilyad say that once their body adapts, they have lots of extra study time, higher energy levels and an elevated mood.
The rationale is that polyphasic sleeping conditions the body to enter the REM sleep stage — the stage believed to be the most important — almost immediately upon falling asleep (for regular sleepers, it would occur at a later point in the sleep cycle). So polyphasic sleeping optimizes snooze time since you need less shut eye to get the benefits from sleeping.
There are two basic types of polyphasic sleep: uberman and everyman. Uberman, the more extreme of the two, was the type Ilyad initially followed for 18 months. Now he’s switched to everyman, with one core sleep that lasts three to four hours and three 20 minute naps during the day (now he just naps one hour to fit his schedule).
In the Middle Ages, people were biphasic, sleep was broken up in two periods and was closely tied to natural light. This included sleeping four hours about an hour after sunset, waking up to read or have sex and then having another four hour sleep at around 2 a.m.
An article in Scientific American Mind says that sleep research suggests breaking a night’s rest in two may be a pattern more in tune with our circadian rhythms, the 24-hour biological cycle of living beings, and natural environment. In the animal kingdom, chimpanzees, giraffes and chipmunks — animals that are active during the day — sleep in two periods.
Polyphasic sleeping entered the public consciousness in the early 1980s when Dr. Claudio Stampi released the book Why We Nap: Evolution, Chronobiology and Functions of Polyphasic and Ultrashort Sleep. He studied 99 sailors in solo and double-handed sailing races to see if polyphasic sleep would help or hinder these timecrunched sailors. The sailors who slept in 20 minute to one hour naps for a total of four and a half to five and a half hours of sleep per day had the best performance results.
Over the past few years, the blogosphere has caught on. Numerous “polynappers” have entire blogs devoted to chronicling their day-to-day experiences with sporadic napping.
Recently, this method of sleep gained more attention when popular self-help author Steve Pavlina became a polyphasic sleeper for just under six months. He quit because the rest of the world is monophasic and not for health reasons.
Cody Harmsen, a blogger who started polyphasic sleeping in Grade 12, said the mind also plays a major role during the transition phase.
“The transition is hard because you’re fighting a never-ending battle with your inner demons who are lazy gluttons who only want you to sleep. You find excuses to sleep even if you shouldn’t.”
He recalls being unable to sleep for long periods of time once he started transitioning. He would go to bed at 12 a.m. and then wake up 25 minutes later without an alarm.
But if he ever missed a nap, he said he’d get extremely cranky.
Harmsen said that once you start polyphasic sleeping, you’ll never dream the same again.
“The dreams feel so good it’s scary. Your mind physically changes when you do polyphasic sleeping. If you woke up out of that deep sleep state and forced yourself to go for a walk, by 3 p.m. you could be crying because you feel so good.”
Since his job doesn’t allow him to nap every few hours he is no longer a steady polyphasic sleeper. But sleep experts disagree with the notion that polyphasic sleep is a healthy alternative to the suggested eight hours.
Colleen Carney, a sleep researcher at Ryerson, warns students against attempting polyphasic sleep because the basis of it is sleep deprivation.
She said the assumption that REM sleep is the most important type of sleep, or deep sleep, is incorrect.
“REM sleep is not deep sleep. It’s light sleep. It used to be called paradoxical sleep. It’s sleep, but that’s sort of a paradox because it looks like you’re awake brain-wise. When you’re in deep sleep, which is called delta sleep — that’s when a lot of the hormone release happens. This is actually the most important phase because your body is restoring itself.”
REM sleep is also depressogenic.
“People tend to feel depressed if they get a lot of it. Most antidepressants suppress REM sleep and that’s one of the reasons why they work.”
She said these irregular sleepers would be prone to viruses because their immune system would be suppressed, and diabetes because it would affect their insulin. As well, she’d expect them to have poor cognitive functioning and mental alertness.
From the perspective of a sleep researcher, she added, there is no such thing as polyphasic sleep.
The closest thing is irregular sleep wake disorder, where people have trouble staying asleep for one block.
“It’s actually a problem and we treat it. Polyphasic sleeping, I was alarmed to learn, is somebody who actually chooses to do this.”
In the days leading up to his final undergraduate thesis, Zia Mahboob slept for 30 minutes every six hours — the uberman method.
During this time, he had terrible pounding headaches. They were so strong, he said, that his free hand would be clutching and pulling at his hair to try to relieve the pain.
“I can be melodramatic and use phrases like dreamlike because it was very lucid,” said Mahboob, who is currently completing his masters in aerospace engineering at Ryerson University. “There are a lot of memory gaps. A couple of weeks after that, when I was reviewing some of my stuff, I couldn’t remember writing these things.”
He said he would never try it again as it wasn’t a very pleasant or productive time in his life. Now, he is careful about making sure he plans ahead.
Still, there is no medical proof that polyphasic sleeping is bad for you. And until proof is given, polyphasic sleepers will continue to spend as close to 24 hours as possible avoiding the sandman.
“For me, sleep is a waste of time,” said Ilyad. “If I can find any way to minimize it without causing a drastic risk to my physical and mental health, I will.”