It is objectively true that the world we live in today is very different from the world people lived in during the industrial revolution—a time of economic change when many of the norms and structures of our culture today were reworked to enable larger scale production of goods. But the complete upheaval of daily life over the past two years has many people similarly rethinking how we do almost everything, now that we are fully submerged in an era of computer technology, environmental shifts and global pandemic. From reevaluating our views on work to the structure of schooling, sleep is no exception. Reading this quippy sleep piece in the Times piqued our editorial team’s interest in a “technique” referred to as segmented sleep. A positive spin on insomnia (maybe), or a way to reinvigorate rest (probably not), the mini-trend felt worthy of further investigation. So we sought to determine what segmented sleep really is and if it’s something worth trying—especially if you can’t quite get on the right sleep schedule these days.
What is segmented sleep?
In short, segmented sleep is a practice of exploring different sleep patterns. Just like a 9am – 5pm work schedule doesn’t work well for everyone, a consecutive 6 – 8 hours of sleep doesn’t necessarily work best for everyone either. For those working from home, there’s a lot more latitude to try out new routines and sleeping patterns. For others, work may already be causing segmented sleep patterns or at least unique windows of sleep—if you work a night shift or serve in a role where you don’t have set hours but are “on call.” For others, sleeping disorders like insomnia may already be causing segmented sleep. So what are the sleep segment options and are there any health benefits?
First of all, there is the most common type sleep pattern: monophasic. Just as it sounds, this sleep pattern is defined as a single phase of sleep per day—what we consider normal: a roughly 8 hour chunk of sleeping time per day, normally at night (though that’s not actually part of the definition). While sleep patterns are driven by our circadian rhythm, increased exposure to bright light can reduce the amount of melatonin people produce leading to disrupted sleep and shorter timeframes for sleep.
Biphasic is a sleep pattern that includes two sleeping times per day. For example, if you had a short night of sleep, maybe clocking 4-5 hours and then topping that off with a 1-2 hour nap in the afternoon, that could be considered biphasic. There’s been some scuttlebutt that afternoon drowsiness is a holdover from the days when people kept more segmented sleeping routines, but it’s unclear if that’s really true.
Polyphasic means that a person sleeps in multiple chunks throughout the day and night. Unlike monophasic and biphasic, there are many ways to conduct a polyphasic sleep schedule. In fact, there are two established ways already for those out there looking to “hack” their sleep. The names for these techniques are pretty much as ridiculous as they are:
- Dymaxian: Popularized by a Time article that came out in 1943 in which a famous architect described his sleep patterns, Dymaxian polyphasic sleeping only amounts to 2 hours of sleep per day—the sleep is spaced out into thirty minute naps every six hours.
- The Uberman schedule: There are multiple ways to be an “uberman” and also multiple ways to get on an uberman sleeping schedule. Generally speaking, this schedule results in about 3 total hours of sleep per day with 20-30 minute naps spread out throughout the waking hours. One variation is called the “Everyman.” This technique involves a consolidated 3-hour block of sleeping time at night with naps scattered throughout the day.
Are there any health benefits?
Not really. Often people inadvertently fall into some of these sleep patterns if they struggle with insomnia. But that’s just the short of it. In very general terms, studies on sleep seem to suggest that it can be as individual as each and every human being (or any being, for that matter)—so while there are some “best practices” that work well nearly universally and common patterns that are emerging in studies, there’s still so much we don’t know. Segmented sleeping isn’t really recommended as being rich in health benefits though and can lead to adverse outcomes. But at the same time, if a regular sleep schedule isn’t working for you, it may be worth giving something new or different a try. At the very least, see if you can determine your natural rhythms (if your work and life schedule allows).
Polyphasic sleep patterns (if you are not imposing them upon yourself) can be indicative of other physical and mental health issues. So even if the “norm” isn’t working for you, it’s always best to consult with a doctor who is familiar with you and your health history about solving a sleep issue or trying something drastically different so you can first determine if there’s an underlying issue to blame. Additionally, multiphasic sleep patterns can often result in sleep deprivation. Even if the timing of sleep isn’t necessarily something that needs to be standardized, the amount of sleep per day does still matter for most.