Sleep Less and Be More Alert with Polyphasic Sleep
By: Dave Asprey
June 11, 2011
I’ve been hacking my sleep since I was a child (before I even knew what hacking was) – always trying to get the most out of my time. But many times when I cut back on sleep, I was tired, needed naps, and relied on coffee to function. The best program I’ve found is my Bulletproof® Sleep method.
First, I take nutritional supplements before I go to sleep – amino acids, magnesium, and potassium. Then I do at least 5 minutes of HeartMath and breathing exercises before bed. Usually, I go to sleep between 2:30 and 4:30 a.m., and sleep until 7:00 or 7:30. I listen to either Pzizz or a custom soundtrack while I sleep, and if I know I’m going to be getting less than 4 hours of sleep, I run a 0.5-1.5hz current across my brain, which is the same current as regenerative sleep.
Even with this little sleep, I’ve monitored my autonomic nervous system and haven’t found any indications that my body is under stress from lack of sleep. My lab work is excellent, and my cortisol level is one of the lowest numbers it’s been.
There are some investments you need to make for Bulletproof Sleep®, like a HeartMath Sensor, and Sleep Cycle to monitor how much REM sleep you’re getting, but it quickly pays for itself giving you an extra 3-4 wakeful hours per day.
I have a confession to make. I’m a sleep hacker. I have been sleep hacking since I learned to read (at 18 months) and began using a flashlight to read at night. Reading was always more fun than sleeping.
I’ve tried several different sleep experiments because I wanted to spend more time experiencing life and less time sleeping.
Delayed sleep + Quasi-multiphasic
Driven by the unnatural setup of a high school schedule, I’d sleep 3-4 hours at night (3-6am), then arrive at school so exhausted that I was famous for taking a nap in almost every class. That meant an additional 1.5 hours of sleep, broken in to 15 minute naps spread across 6 periods. (Since I was ranked second in my class, my teachers let me get away with it.) On Fridays and Saturdays, I’d sleep for 10-12 hours putting my weekly average between 6.5 and 7.3 hours of sleep per night. This was not efficient, nor did it improve my health. There’s also evidence that people under 20 need extra sleep. I also stupidly used Coke (the bubbly kind) for alertness.
At university, I decided to follow my circadian rhythm (assuming I actually had one left). I naturally found that when class schedules allowed, I stayed up until 6am, then slept until 11am or noon. 4-6 hours per night was a slight improvement, and it was slightly more efficient because no one else was awake. This method didn’t really save a lot of time, and probably didn’t help with alertness either. Sleeping in on weekends also didn’t help my average very much. I didn’t quantify alertness then but I realize that it was declining. Coffee for alertness in the morning.
Radically Reduced Sleep Experiment 1
I decided to complete 2 semesters of Computer Information Systems classes in a single semester while starting a career as a magazine writer. For 90 days, I slept 2-3 hours per night (from 5am to 7am) then drove to school barely awake before downing 40-60 oz of coffee to start a day of classes. I’d feel awesome until I’d crash 3 hours later, then somehow make it through the day. My GPA was 3.9 that semester, (my best ever) but by the end of the semester, I felt like I’d burned myself out and just didn’t have the focus I wanted to have. In addition to sick amounts of coffee, I worked out several times a week with weights in order to have more energy. In retrospect, I gave myself adrenal fatigue and probably hurt my thyroid function with this experiment. Fixing it took some time after I later realized what I was doing to my endocrine system.
Polyphasic Sleep Experiment
In the year 2000, I read about polyphasic sleep in 2000 in this post. I tried it briefly a year or two later, but the massive inconvenience and rigidity of the schedule in no way made up for the few hours of sleep it saved. Polyphasic sleep gave me 4-6 hours/night with a little extra on weekends. I gave it about 6 weeks and found that it didn’t work with my schedule as an executive who also ran a university program in the evenings, followed by additional biohacking afterwards. I also have serious concerns about melatonin production on this schedule.
Bulletproof® Sleep: Radically Reduced Enhanced Recovery Sleep
All these years of playing with sleep helped me learn more about sleep quality: falling asleep fast and spending as much time as possible in REM and delta (deep restorative) sleep. I give my body as much nutrition as I can before sleep (including a handful of relaxing amino acids, magnesium, potassium, and trace minerals) so it has raw materials to regenerate.
On the average night, I go to sleep at between 2:30 and 4:30am and sleep until 7:00-7:30. On most nights, I use Pzizz or a custom soundtrack. If I will get less than 4 hours of sleep, I use my CES machine to run a current across my brain at between 0.5 and 1.5hz (the range of physical regenerative sleep). I’ve had nights of 2.5 hours of sleep at 1.5hz which resulted in me waking fully alert and ready to go. I can sustain 2 hours of sleep for 3 nights in a row, with flights between each night, before I start to lose performance. Every night, I do at least 5 minutes of Heart Math heart rate variability coherence/breathing exercises before sleep, with or without the emWave unit.
I’ve gone for 19 months on this schedule, sleeping less than 5 hours always (5 hours feels like sleeping in), and often much less. I’ve traveled extensively during this time, had a 2nd baby, and had several career changes (from time at a VC on Sand Hill Road, to 2 start-ups, to working as a VP for a large Internet security company). I *feel* great. My immune function is good. I started to worry that I was aging or killing myself with this program, so being an anti-aging guy and a biohacker, I got the data.
I wore a stick-on advanced 24 hour heart rate recording device to monitor autonomic nervous system function to see if I was experiencing stress. It showed very good ANS function. It hurt like hell when it came off, too:
My red blood cell volume is ideal. My blood & lipid chemistry is shockingly good. My cortisol level is 107, the 2nd lowest I’ve had in 7 years of tracking it, despite a more stressful lifestyle. I can’t find any data that says I’m harming myself.
In my mind, this is proof that polyphasic sleep is for masochists. If I can thrive on 4 hours of continuous sleep for long periods of time, and only 2 hours when necessary, why would I go through the inconvenience, crazy schedules, and inflexibility of polyphasic sleep? I wouldn’t trade one extra hour of the day for a rigid requirement forcing me to sleep at awkward times in the day. The law of diminishing returns gets in the way of polyphasic sleep.
Plus, I get to curl up next to my beautiful wife at night, something that is good for my relationship. Polyphasic snuggling just isn’t very hot, and having to take a nap right in the middle of a Saturday family event is no good either. I also get to see my two young children during the day when I’m working from home, and I’m awake and alert all day long!
If you are looking to reduce your sleep, this is what you need to do:
1) Convince yourself that 5 hours of sleep is all you need to be healthy (the data is here to prove it) and that 8 hours is too much (it is).
2) Go on the Bulletproof® Diet. You will need the high functioning metabolism to keep you healthy and strong. Healthy people need less sleep.
3) Take the relaxation nutrients I recommend in the sleep hacking posts.
4) Get a HeartMath Sensor and learn to use it. It is proven to reduce cortisol and improve sleep.
5) Get Sleep Cycle so you can see how much REM vs deep sleep you are actually getting.
6) Get Pzizz so you can get into deeper sleep faster.
7) Consider a CES machine if you’re going to go for less than 4 hours of sleep regularly. If a CES is too pricey, a light/sound machine may work as well.
If you do not have the equipment I reference here, please consider supporting this blog by purchasing it from the links above. I use everything here and have for years; nothing in this post is here for commercial reasons. I also offer executive coaching if you want 1 on 1 advice.
Getting an extra 3-4 hours per night is life-changing. You could write a book, finally answer your email, or learn a language. It’s awesome! The steps above aren’t very hard to do. Figuring them out, on the other hand, has taken years. I hope this info proves helpful to you too.