Can we gain time by training our bodies to rest more deeply less often? And is it good for us?
The search for sleep quality over quantity
The medical view on sleep is pretty straightforward. "Ninety-five per cent of people need between six and 10 hours of sleep a night, while the average is just over eight hours," says Adrian Williams, a professor of sleep medicine at King's College in London.
While sleep's core position at the heart of our well-being can't be ignored, a growing band of "sleep hackers" are trying to replace sleep quantity with sleep quality.
Sleep breaks down into three forms: light sleep; rapid eye movement sleep (REM), which nourishes our emotional and creative abilities; and deep sleep, which is when the brain and body rebuild and when our bodies secrete the most human growth hormone. While REM and deep sleep seem to do more restorative work than light sleep, sleep analysis shows that we spend more time every night in light sleep than anything else.
This is where the sleep hackers wield their swords, aiming to boost their REM and deep sleep stages while sacrificing light sleep, cutting total sleeping time down to anything from a reasonable six hours a night to a bare minimum of two.
The latter is achieved by polyphasic (multi-phase) sleeping, with six 20-minute naps a day. By all accounts, it is difficult in the first week as the body transitions to the new routine, but after that, it can be quite sustainable. No long-term studies of the health risks associated with such extreme sleep reduction exist, though, and advocates to date are largely one-man case studies experimenting on themselves. But many of them claim great results.
Unsurprisingly, the medical profession is less keen.
"If you're only getting an hour or so of sleep a night you're a danger to yourself and your body," says Williams.
While gaining an extra 40 hours a week by only sleeping two hours a day might sound attractive, polyphasic sleep has a major drawback: as long as the rest of the world is sleeping monophasically (in one, single phase, those six or eight hours spent in bed), the time you gain by going polyphasic is at night, precisely when the rest of the world is shut down. As the sleep blogger Doug Stewart explains, "Everyone I know who's tried polyphasic sleeping says their social life was severely impacted."
So until the rest of the world makes the switch to polyphasic, it remains little more than a fruitless - if fascinating - experiment. But it does suggest it is possible to sleep less and function well.
While many people sleep less during Ramadan, there is at least a rigid routine in place during this time that helps the body adapt, as well as the opportunity to nap during the day, which can be hugely beneficial. Sleep professionals suggest the best results come from naps that either last less than 20 minutes or more than 90. At 20 minutes or less you can achieve deep sleep benefits; at 90 and above you can run through a full light/deep/REM sleep cycle. Anything outside of these boundaries will probably leave you feeling worse, however, as will napping in the evening before bed.
Polyphasic experiments really caught my attention after I calculated that a mere two-hour sleep reduction per day could produce a full extra month of awake time every year. Now that's a life-changing amount of time.
Ready to experiment, I picked up a sleep monitor called a ZEO Sleep Manager. Little more than a small headband and smartphone app, it maps sleep patterns, letting you learn how you sleep and how your sleep reacts to altering variables. The plan was to collect baseline data of how I now sleep to compare it with future data as I tweak a few of these variables (altering bedtimes and mealtimes, caffeine or alcohol intake, mattress type, and so on) in a quest to maximise my deep and REM sleep while reducing total sleeping time.
The system, which costs around US$150 (Dh550), claims to be your personal "sleep coach", providing users with web resources and information on improving sleep and achieving almost any sleep-related goal.
But while it brings technology that was once the sole preserve of the scientific sleep laboratory into our homes, it takes some getting used to.
Once my wife had stopped laughing at how daft I looked wearing the ZEO headband, I found that the headband could easily off, which fouled the results. I also had trouble pairing it with my phone (it connects via Bluetooth) and it wouldn't provide data for short naps. Plus, although sleep gurus recommend disconnecting from technology an hour before bed for best sleep, the ZEO forces you into messing with your phone right before crashing out.
So it's not perfect, but since the alternative is spending your nights at a sleep laboratory with professional doctors, it's still impressive. As the nights wore on, I began to understand how erratic my sleep habits were, and where I could make improvements that might let me reach my goal of full refreshment in just six hours.
I asked the experts at King's College what my chances of success were; unfortunately, Professor Williams politely suggested they weren't good.
"The mantra in sleep is you cannot shorten the amount you genetically need."
The only way to discover your genetic sleep needs is to take a week's break to fully relax, stick to a fixed routine of bed and meal times, and then just let yourself wake up naturally. By the end of the week you will have achieved your natural rhythm. I had doubts six hours would be mine, although professor Chris Idzikowski of the Edinburgh Sleep Centre offered a ray of hope.
"People can manage shorter terms of sleep for experimental periods," he said.
So my experiment was at least possible; whether it would land me the results I wanted was less certain. But when it comes to discovering what we're capable of, Idzikowski explained the body itself is one of the strongest tools at our disposal.
"If you reduce sleep just by setting the alarm earlier, deep and REM sleep will naturally redistribute themselves, while some light sleep will be lost. Sleep can naturally become more efficient with time."
I had one final question: are there any known health risks associated with toying with sleep patterns?
According to both Idzikowski and Williams, potential long-term side affects in severe cases could range from gastrointestinal and cardiovascular issues to weight gain and impaired immune system function. However, both were keen to stress direct links between poor sleep and all of these problems are not yet fully understood.
Talking about my specific aim of reducing sleep to six hours a night and backing it up with a healthy diet and good monitoring, Idzikowski summed up by saying, "In short, I don't think it's a real problem."
It was all the encouragement I needed. I'm already planning what to do with my extra month.
Keys to a good sleep
Regularity of routine Eating, going to bed and getting up at around the same time, even at weekends, is a huge help
Environment Make sure your bed is in good condition, your sheets are clean and your room is cool and dark, but not so dark you don't get some gentle light - as the sun rises it stimulates your biological clock into waking
Food Eat earlier rather than later because heat generated by digestion can stop us sleeping
Caffeine Avoid it completely after 3pm, otherwise it can disturb your sleep
Source: Dr Chris Idzikowski, The Edinburgh Sleep Centre