Busy Beyond Belief? Why an Alternative Sleep Cycle Might be the Answer
Ever wondered if an alternative sleep cycle is for you? Check out these different cycles and see if one is right for you.
College kids don’t sleep enough, right? Whenever I discuss sleep with my friends, it always seems to turn into a contest.
“Oh, you only got six hours of sleep last night? I wish I had gotten that much. I only got five.” Maybe we’re just unnecessarily competitive, but we’re also unreasonably proud of our ability to starve our bodies of sleep. It shows willpower and toughness, right?
Imagine treating food that way (which, by the way, is actually an eating disorder). It’s not healthy. But many of us keep refusing to sleep. And with finals week quickly approaching, students are increasingly likely to spend their nights studying as they cram a semester’s worth of information into their exhausted brains.
If you’re only getting 4-6 hours of sleep per night, then that’s typically not enough. You are probably struggling throughout the day. You may experience difficulty focusing, headaches and reduced efficiency. Or you might be suffering from an overreliance on Starbucks. Do you pull out your textbooks to study at 10 p.m. and see the words swirling in front of you? Or find yourself nodding off at inappropriate times?
If that’s you, then you have three options. 1: Continue your current sleep schedule, with the same consequences. 2: Get more sleep, and sacrifice your time elsewhere. You may have to work less, wake up earlier to study, or give up some time with your friends, significant other or Netflix. This second option is generally the best, but there is one more. 3: Experiment with an alternative sleep cycle. If you have insomnia or another sleep disorder, and you struggle to squeeze enough sleep into your busy day, then this may be the ideal option.
Generally, we think our bodies require eight hours of sleep to function at our best. But according to this fascinating Psychology Today article, the concept is a myth, not a rule. Here in the U.S., we typically develop monophasic (a long sleep once per day) sleep patterns. We’ll head to bed between 10-12 p.m. and wake up between 6-8 a.m.
But there are also polyphasic sleep patterns. These are when people sleep several times throughout the day. These sleeps are shorter, more efficient, and pretty incredible. In many Hispanic (and some European) countries, siestas are popular. A person might sleep for five to six hours per night and take a 20-minute nap toward the middle of the day.
There are four main alternative schedules, and I’ll break them down quickly, summarizing information from here:
Biphasic sleep may take a few different forms, but in each one you are sleeping in two phases. I mentioned the siesta sleep cycle earlier, but another segmented sleep is another option. In that cycle, you go to bed at sunset and rise with the sun. Around three-and-a-half hours after bedtime, you’ll wake up for a couple of hours before heading back to sleep. In this system, you’ll generally sleep between six to eight hours. Polyphasic Society purports (with links to scientific journals) that this is our natural sleep cycle, and will result in increased energy and hormone production, but I’m a little skeptical.
In a triphasic sleep cycle, you’ll take three naps that are each roughly one-and-a-half hours long. And that’s all. According to Polyphasic Society, you’ll take “a nap after dusk, a nap before dawn, and a nap in the afternoon.” Because it purportedly aligns with your body’s Circadian rhythm, this cycle appears to be one of the easiest to adapt to.
Here’s where things start getting a little crazy. In the Everyman sleep cycle, you’ll have one three-and-a-half hours of core sleep each night followed by three 20-minute naps throughout the day. That’s a total of four-and-a-half hours of sleep per day, which seems insane. There are three derivatives of this cycle that tweak the sleep times, if four-and-a-half hours isn’t enough for you.
Also, this cycle may be difficult to adjust to. The timing and consistency of your naps are important here, and those naps need to be very efficient. You don’t want to start this on Monday of finals week. Consider this to be a summer project, or begin your adaption process for a couple weeks before school starts back.
According to the website, this is the most popular — and most failed — alternative sleep cycle. Why? Because you only sleep for two hours a night. In its traditional form, you’ll have six twenty-minute naps spread throughout the day. And that’s all. You completely eliminate core sleep. If you can handle it (and stay disciplined with your naps), then you’ll add roughly four to six waking hours to your day.
For this cycle, the adaption period is pretty difficult, and you’ll likely endure several days of sleep deprivation before your body adjusts. It won’t be pretty. And it may not be an option for most. If it isn’t working for you after a week or so, the website recommends adding two more naps into your day (total of eight). In this cycle, an additional 40 minutes of sleep goes a long way.
So how do these alternative sleep cycles work? How is it possible to survive — and maybe even thrive — on as little as three hours of sleep per day? These cycles attempt to maximize your body’s sleep efficiency. Proponents of alternative sleep cycles suggest that although you sleep for six to eight hours per night, that sleep may be wasteful. By training and disciplining yourself, they propose that it’s possible to eliminate most of that waste.
These cycles aren’t without their critics though. Some people have accused the cycles of being pseudoscientific and have expressed concerns of sleep deprivation for subscribers to the more extreme cycles. I recommend you try one, but in case you’re hesitant, there are other ways of making your sleep more efficient and healthy. Specifically, you can develop better sleeping hygiene.
If you struggle with insomnia (as 33 percent of Americans do), then improving your sleep habits may help you sleep better. Many of these habits are relatively common sense: Don’t consume any caffeine or nicotine after noon. Set regular sleep and wake times. If you can’t fall asleep after an hour, get up and do something. Don’t watch TV in bed, and reduce the noise in your room. If your room is too bright, consider purchasing blackout curtains or wearing a sleep mask. And don’t exercise or take a hot shower right before bed. That shower will delay your body’s temperature rhythm, making it harder for you to fall asleep.
If you struggle with sleep or are constantly tired, these tips may help you fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, and feel better when waking up. And if you want to wake up feeling energized and refreshed, wake up at the end of a sleep cycle. Your body generally goes through several of these per night, and they each last roughly 90 minutes. Use this sleep calculator to determine the best wake-up time for your alarm, and you’ll avoid the grogginess and exhaustion of waking up halfway through a cycle.
Whether you try an alternative sleep cycle, or you just work to improve your sleep hygiene, remember that sleep is important. Sleep deprivation is dangerous — it can literally kill you — and just a few days without sleep can induce temporary psychosis and hallucinations. And that’s not even referring to the increased risks of heart disease, diabetes and even high blood pressure. If you struggle with insomnia, sleep apnea, or simply don’t sleep well, please consider contacting Auburn’s Student Counseling Services. Long-term sleep deprivation will hurt your academics, relationships, and *most importantly* your gym gains.
Ever tried one of these alternative sleep cycles before? Know of any other ways to make sleeping more efficient? Comment below, or message us @AuburnCampusRec on social media and let us know. We always love hearing from you.
Be well, Auburn.
Photography: Cat S.