A Critique on the Modern Human’s Sleep Schedule

A few days ago, early in the afternoon,  a friend of mine asked if I would go with her to run some errands. I said no, and she went without me, assuming I had more important priorities that day. Her assumption turned out to be true; on most days as soon as I got home would change into comfortable clothes and climb into bed. This particular day was no exception.


One can say that I blew her off that afternoon, because my only excuse was that I needed a nap. A good portion of the people I know think that napping is unproductive and lazy, because for most people, sleeping during the day leaves them groggy and irritable for the rest of the day. When I tell people I take naps, they generally respond with a perplexed expression and questions about how I find the time for napping.


Fortunately, it turns out that almost everyone has time for napping. Even better news is that napping efficiently has better long-term effects for certain people than the traditional, nightly sleep schedule. To help demonstrate how this could possibly true, I would like to propose a scenario.


It’s 11:00 P.M., and you are just about to drift off to sleep, ready for your usual refreshing, seven hour rest. Unfortunately, you find yourself waking up around 3 A.M., wide awake and refreshed despite only having four hours of sleep. You toss and turn for what feels like eternity and eventually fall asleep, seemingly instantaneously, around 5 A.M. Two hours later, at 7A.M., your alarm goes off and you wake up groggy, frustrated, and prepared to spend a little extra money at your local coffee shop to keep you going for the day.


This has happened to most, if not all, humans at some point in their lives. We often blame our lifestyle for not being able to sleep “properly,” but the root of our sleep problems comes from our common knowledge of sleeping. It’s a generally known fact that humans need roughly six to eight hours of sleep, and this fact is commonly misconstrued as, “humans need roughly six to eight hours of sleep in a row.” The traditional six to eight hour sleep cycle known as the monophasic (single phase) cycle, has been accepted globally by society. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work for everyone.


When you wake up in the middle of the night for no apparent reason, your body is attempting a different type of sleep cycle, known as the polyphasic (many phase) sleep cycle. Historically, our ancestors as far back as the 1600s were known to have as biphasic (two phase) sleep cycle. They would fall asleep around dusk, wake up after a few hours to socialize or do other recreational activities, and then go back to sleep until sunrise. The reason we changed to the monophasic cycle was very much related to the invention of the electric light in the late 1800s. With the ability to control when we had light, society for the most part adapted to the monophasic cycle.


A famous sleep study was performed in the 1990s by Dr.Thomas Wehr where he successfully manipulated participants’ sleep schedules to match the biphasic sleep schedule. When artificially altered, the participants’ circadian rhythms and melatonin secretion naturally adjusted so that they would sleep for a few hours, wake up, stay up for one to three hours, and then go back to sleep for the same duration as their previous rest.


Besides the monophasic and biphasic sleep schedules, there are three other recognized sleep cycles: the dymaxion sleep schedule, comprised of a thirty-minute nap every six hours; the Uberman schedule, comprised of six thirty-minute naps every twenty-four hours; and the Everyman schedule, which is a three hour nap with three twenty-minute naps spread throughout the day.


With all these different options, it's easy to see that not everyone has the same requirements when it comes to sleeping. In fact, the varying sleep cycles, particularly the biphasic cycle, could help explain insomnia. People who are only able to sleep a few hours at a time may find the biphasic cycle to be more natural for them.


Over the past few months, I have been studying my own sleep schedule. I find that my most productive days happen when I wake up naturally early (around 4 or 5 A.M.) and take a nap spanning from twenty minutes to one and a half hours in the afternoon. This way, I can stay productive late into the night and not worry about getting the full eight hour sleep because of my scheduled day nap.


I encourage you to experiment with your sleep cycle, especially if you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Polyphasic sleep schedules have been observed across the animal kingdom, so it makes sense that it could apply to humans as well.


I would like to leave you with one of my favorite websites to plan out my sleep schedule. It’s called http://sleepyti.me/, and if you input the time you need to wake up, it shows what times you should fall asleep based on the ninety-minute sleep cycle. Whether you sleep for three hours or nine hours, you will wake up feeling refreshed as long as the duration of the nap is divisible by ninety minutes so that each sleep cycle is complete.


Sweet Dreams from HC,

Liz Thomas


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