Is Sleep Really Necessary?
The Uberman sleep cycle replaces 8 hours of shut-eye with six 20-minute naps, yielding huge time savings to invest in waking accomplishments. Our man tried it. Should you?
What if I offered you the chance to extend your life by 10 years? I’m talking about extra time throughout your life, starting now. This offer affords you a whopping 25 percent more time to excel at your job, bond with the people you love, indulge in your dreams, or just chill.
Is that something that might interest you? If it’s not, stop reading and go to bed. You see, sweet slumber is the dead zone from which you’ll reclaim that valuable time.
I’d been adding items to my to-do list at a much faster rate than I was checking them off when I heard about the Uberman sleep cycle. This extreme form of polyphasic sleeping involves 20-minute naps every 4 hours. (A monophasic sleep pattern would be your typical 8-hour block of sleep every 24 hours.) Some converts to Uberman claim that after an adjustment period, usually lasting anywhere from a week to 3 weeks, they feel no less alert than they would have if they’d been clocking 8 hours a night.
Leonardo da Vinci is said to have followed a sleep pattern akin to Uberman. Maybe that’s what allowed him sufficient time to design prototypical versions of the helicopter, hang glider, parachute, and submarine, and paint theMona Lisa and Last Supper. In fact, geniuses and military leaders throughout history have been linked with polyphasic and unconventional sleeping habits— Napoleon, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and Winston Churchill, to name a few. Who knows how different our world would be today if these men had bunked down at sunset? I wasn’t looking to invade Prussia, but I thought I could at least use some extra time to renew my driver’s license and figure out my taxes.
I was encouraged in this pursuit by Claudio Stampi, M.D., Ph.D., the editor ofWhy We Nap: Evolution, Chronobiology, and Functions of Polyphasic and Ultrashort Sleep. In the early 1980s, Dr. Stampi began researching polyphasic sleep after he noticed his fellow long-distance sailboat-racing comrades adopting a polyphasic sleep pattern with minimal impairment. Since then, the elusive Dr. Stampi has been dodging interviewers (like me) and seeking ways to reduce sleep.
I asked W. Christopher Winter, M.D., a board-certified sleep-medicine specialist and the medical director of the Sleep Medicine Center at Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville, Virginia, if he considered any of this to be a good idea.
He didn’t. “All kinds of things could happen to individuals who aresleep deprived,” he told me. “Changes in blood pressure, heart rate, hormones, glucose metabolism, temperature regulation, and appetite can be seen quite quickly.”
And to boot, Dr. Winter says, certain theories even tack death onto that laundry list of results: “The sleepless individualis probably cold [due to increased energy expenditure], so hypothermia could be an eventual cause of death. So could catabolism — that is, an increased metabolic rate and protein breakdown — and susceptibility to disease from a weakened immune system.”
I kept on calling experts until I found one who would at least offer some measure of support for this plan. Sara C. Mednick, Ph.D., the author ofTake a Nap! Change Your Life, stopped far short of a rubber stamp, but she did at least find an analogy that gave comfort.
“As infants we were all vociferous proponents of polyphasic sleep,” she noted, “and in late adulthood we’re prone to more frequent napping. It leads me to think that the only reason we don’t check out for refreshing 20-minute naps in the 60 years in between is because we’ve learned not to.”
It was a lesson I would try to unlearn.
I’m a pretty good candidate for an unconventional sleep schedule. I live alone, I have free-form work hours, and I’m in good health. I also had a ton of TV to catch up on. So I scheduled any appointments or meetings around my naps (at 2 a.m., 6 a.m., 10 a.m., 2 p.m., 6 p.m., and 10 p.m.). I beefed up my Netflix subscription and bought a “learn Spanish” CD-ROM, along with sheet music to Eddie Van Halen’s most blistering guitar solos. In my suddenly overflowing spare time, I would become a culture-vulture Uberman in the flesh.
The first night, I crawled into bed at my usual time and left it 20 minutes later without having slept at all. So I kicked things off with a 2:30 a.m. screening ofRaging Bull. The movie’s final 20 minutes were accompanied by birdsong. I took a dawn stroll around the neighborhood (a first while sober) and returned to my apartment just in time for my 6 a.m. Ubernap. I dropped off quickly, though the buzz of my alarm just 20 minutes later drove murderous urges throughout my exhausted body. But relief was only a bath, a breakfast, and two Sopranos episodes away.
Scientific data on the Uberman Cycle is in scant supply, which makes it open season for the sleep docs to criticize it. “Getting a total of 2 hours of sleep per 24 on a chronic basis would seem to me to be impossible,” says Dr. Winter. “My guess is that the anecdotal reports fail to include sleeping in which the individual is not aware he slept, or periods during which he slept beyond his 20- to 30-minute window.”
I didn’t let that bug me, though, because I was also in touch with Puredoxyk, a prolific polyphasic blogger who began writing about her experiences with Uberman in 2000. She’d adhered to the cycle for 6 months until a job change knocked her off. Via e-mail, she suggested that fiddly guitar solos, a second language, and all things concentration-heavy were a little ambitious for my initial adaptation period.
“You also need tasks where you don’t have to be functioning at a high level,” she wrote. Her suggestions: cleaning my apartment, darning socks. My Uberman was turning into Felix Ungar.
By all accounts, the initial adaptation period is by far the most arduous and critical time of the Uberman cycle. My body seemed to be yelling “What the f—?” at me. A feeling of slight nausea was ever present. But this background hum of queasy fatigue was lightened by fleeting moments of euphoria. Nap proponent Mednick was happy to point out that “a broken clock is correct at least once a day. Your natural circadian cycles will still be pushing for you to be awake and alert at specific times, so you are just hitting a good high cycle at that point, regardless of what you do the rest of the time. The contrast to how bad you felt makes feeling good even better.”
By the fourth day, I was cursing myself for signing on to the project. It was about this time that I began to get canker sores in my mouth, the beginnings of a cold, an outbreak of pimples. Meanwhile, my circle of friends agreed that I was edgy and irritable, and looked like death.
I was certainly in no state to write the Great American Novel or learn Spanish. I joylessly stared off into space for hours on end. As Dr. Winter theorizes, I might have been sleeping during those floaty periods without even realizing it. “When you think you are awake, you are probably having numerous microsleeps that you are consciously unaware of,” he says. “The mind can be painfully unaware of sleep. Which is why self-reporting can be frankly incorrect.”
So maybe you shouldn’t trust me on this one, but in the third week of Uberman, I swear I achieved a level of alertness and physical well-being that was not that much different from the good old monophasic days. It was at this critical juncture, I hoped, that I could really start reaping the benefits of this madness.
I referred back to the list of tasks I’d promised myself I’d tackle once I emerged from the “pain and suffering” phase of Uberman. But sleeplessness robs me of the last 5 to 10 percent of my mental acuity, which is where I find the motivation to actually accomplish things. So instead of pushing my new agenda, I watched lots and lots of television and was frequently mistaken for a junkie in my local park. I doubt da Vinci faced that problem.
Though I’d begun to retrieve my faculties,
I found it very difficult to keep track of what day it was, and after abandoning my circadian routine, I was never sure when to shower, change clothes, or brush my teeth. I did, however, establish a pattern whereby I ate a meal or snack immediately after a nap. On the six-meals-a-day plan, I was eating about 30 percent more food, but by the end of the third week, I discovered that I’d lost 7 pounds, or about 5 percent of my body weight.
This was no surprise to Dr. Winter. “Rats deprived of sleep dramatically increased their eating despite losing weight before they died, in about 11 to 22 days,” he said. “It is thought that much of the rats’ weight loss came via increased activity to maintain body temperature.”
Week 4 saw the return of my canker sores and cold. This physical downturn coincided with my realization that on the Uberman plan, I had more time than I knew what to do with. Working for myself on my own schedule meant that I was able to commit to a month of Uberman, and ironically, it was the reason I had little use for those extra 6 hours a day. The white flag (in the form of an unused pillowcase) was about to go up. I’m no Uberman, it turns out.
Not even the French have enjoyed surrender as much as I did at 5 p.m. on my final day. I relished brushing my teeth, turning off my phone, and donning the sleep mask I’d kept from a long-haul flight. So amazing was the feeling of my body hitting the mattress that I couldn’t stop myself from laughing.
Within 30 seconds it seemed, I was out.
I awoke at 8:30 the following morning with more than 15 hours of sweet slumber behind me. My close friends could see that I’d thrown in the towel before I even announced it.
“Thank God for that,” said one friend as he saw me striding purposefully toward him. “You looked like shit for a month.”
Would I follow Uberman again? Absolutely not. Science aside, I know in my weary bones how critical sleep is. That’s one lesson I take from the experience. I also learned that my favorite Spanish word is siesta — but as a sleep supplement, not a substitute.