Drifting away

Recent research suggests that one long sleep may not always be best, James Mcauliffe looks at the perils of maximising your daily working hours

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The majority of first-year undergraduates would allude to a significant alteration in sleep patterns upon starting university. Report deadlines looming, pulling all nighters, many aspects of student life come into full conflict with traditional sleeping patterns. But it has been suggested that there are alternative sleep cycles available and that the human body can adapt to an alternative sleep pattern.

The idea that alternative sleep patterns might be possible stems from the fact that not all sleep is equal. Sleep consists of several different stages each characterized by unique psychological and physiological changes. In short, the stages of sleep can be summarized as light sleep followed by a period of deep sleep (known as slow wave sleep or SWS) and the rapid eye movement stage (REM). On average, a person sleeping for the usual eight or so hours will go through a cycle of the stages somewhere between 4 - 5 times in one night, each lasting for 90 minutes.

The REM sleep stage is characterized by a rapid and random movement of the eyes and is accompanied by vivid dreaming and a state of temporary muscle paralysis (known as muscle atonia) to prevent dreams from being physically acted out. REM is argued to be one of the most important sleep stages as studies have shown that it is associated with processing information gathered during the day and long-term memory formation. It has been shown that in people deprived of sleep during a night, the initial first stages of sleep are compressed and the latter slow wave sleep stages, and particularly REM, are entered more rapidly.

Several alternative sleep cycles have been proposed and attempted. They aim to develop a more efficient sleeping style whereby time spent asleep is minimized and the number of awake hours available for productive activity, socializing, work and creative projects, is maximized. The majority of people will be familiar with what is known as a monophasic sleep cycle. This is one long period of sleep every 24 hours.

However, a biphasic sleeping pattern will be far more readily recognized by most university students. Also adopted by habitants of hot Mediterranean climates, it consists of a four to four and a half hour sleep during the night, followed by a 90 minute nap around midday.

Two more unusual styles, termed 'The Everyman' and 'The Uberman' by alternative sleep enthusiasts, are based on a polyphasic sleep pattern. The Everyman sleep cycle consists of a long 'core' nap of around three hours supplemented with several 20 - 30 minute naps throughout a 24 hour period, cutting total sleep time down to around four and a half hours a day.
The Uberman takes this idea to an extreme and consists of only six 20 - 30 minute naps every four hours. This cuts the total sleep time down to a mind bafflingly small three hours a day. Polyphasic sleep is often practiced by competitive solo yacht racers and soldiers because of the need to be frequently awake and in a state of readiness.

Although the idea of extending available waking hours might seem attractive, there is evidence to show that an entirely Uberman approach to sleeping might not be realistically attainable or even desirable.

"The long-term health implications of cutting down these stages would be impossible to predict"

Firstly, adjusting to a new sleeping pattern is believed to take on average around two weeks. Even those who claim to have successfully achieved a polyphasic schedule have reported they soon had to give it up due to incompatibility with a predominantly monophasic world.
It has been claimed that a host of famous thinkers, notably Da Vinci, Jefferson and Einstein, have for some periods of their lives slept polyphasically. However, these claims are largely unsubstantiated and a polyphasic sleep pattern may actually reduce creative output.

Furthermore, little research has been done on the long term health effects of adopting a polyphasic sleep cycle. The sleep stages prior to REM are thought to be required for body maintenance, stimulating growth and development, repairing muscles and tissues, and boosting your immune system.

The long-term health implications of cutting down these stages would be impossible to predict. Recent research has also shown that there may be a genetic factor involved in how much sleep an individual requires.
So for the average student, the Uberman approach to sleeping might be best left for times of imminent deadlines and the best advice would be to listen to the body's natural feelings as an indication of how much shut eye to take each night.

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