Twenty-First Century Of Sleep Deprivation

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Sleepless nights have become an increasingly frequent way of handling an extraordinary workload while maintaining a social life. The extreme proponents of this approach sleep only 4 hours a night. How and with what consequences?

A widely quoted saying holds that you can have only two of the following three things: a career, a social life, or sufficient sleep. Surveys show that more and more people prefer to exclude the last option.

Slumber Slaughter

An survey conducted by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that 35.3 % of 74,571 adult respondents slept less than 7 hours a day in 2009. The situation was even worse among young adults. Only one third of the high school students interviewed reported sleeping at least 8 hours in an average night. Although fresh global data are missing, voluntary insomnia seems to be on the rise. The Stanford Medicine News Center recently warned of a “sleep deprivation epidemic” among teenagers. The desire to succeed together with high expectations and the temptations of online technology make time in bed increasingly scarce.

Sleeplessness as a Commodity

The consumption of beverages supressing drowsiness has increased correspondingly. The average consumption of coffee in some countries exceeds 5 kg per capita annually; and apart from the ever-popular coke, various sorts of energy drinks containing taurine have experienced a wave of popularity as well. Internet discussions ricochet with advice about how to avoid falling asleep, for example using a blue light to stimulate your mind, listening to rhythmic music, and regular stretching or dynamic breathing exercises. A special way to beat fatigue is called “polyphasic sleep”.

Have a Rest…from Sleeping

The customary recommendation is to sleep 8 hours a day in one phase – monophasically. However, the proponents of polyphasic sleep claim that hours of night sleeping may be effectively substituted by minutes of daytime napping. For example, instead of 8 hours, it is possible to sleep 3.5 hours at night together with 1.5 hours in the afternoon and have two 20 minute naps in the morning and during the evening. Thus, more than 2 extra hours are added to the day. “The big advantage is that the others seem to you uselessly hibernated. Deprived of the years of life,” states the webpage of Jiří Knesl, Czech software developer and team leader who has experimented with polyphasic sleep. On the other hand, he recognizes an obvious disadvantage to this approach – it’s hard for relatives and friends to get used to your polyphasic lifestyle.

Everyman and Uberman

Another “sleepless celebrity” introduced by the Czech portal idnes.cz was Tomáš Votruba. This young protester against psychology and the couch claimed to be happy with replacing 3 hours of night sleep with two daytime naps for 20 minutes each. This technique is called “Everyman”. The most brutal version of polyphasic sleep bears the symptomatic name “Uberman”. People practicing it should sleep every 4 hours for 20 to 30 minutes. Online discussions describe contradictory experience with this tactic.

Sleepless Suicide?

Discrepancies arise even among the academics who focus on this matter. Some of them point out that polyphasic sleeping is natural, little babies also sleep polyphasically. This way of resting could be traced to the Middle Ages and ancient times, and it is supposed to have been practiced by famous people such as Leonardo da Vinci. After all, nothing refreshes you like a nap. A vocal proponent of napping is Dr. Claudio Tampi, founder of the Chronobiolgy Research Institute in Massachusetts, who has focused on polyphasic sleep in extreme conditions, among sailors or soldiers, and published a book titled Why We Nap. On the other hand, the opponents of polyphasic sleeping object that the long term health consequences of sleep deprivation will sooner or later arrive. Even if the body is tricked by daytime naps in the short term, the overall lack of sleep may still cause ineffectiveness, depression, and various aches. “EEG measurements indicate that humans are basically biphasic. There is a single powerful drive to sleep during a subjective night, and a single dip in alertness in the middle of the subjective day,” writes Dr. Piotr Wozniak, Polish researcher of learning and sleeping processes. He adds: “It is possible to shift the sleep phase. However, we do not know any biological mechanisms that could be used to reduce the length of a healthy sleep block without inducing a degree of sleep deprivation. Thus, polyphasic sleeping may be an efficient tool to handle extraordinarily harsh sleep-deprived weeks. But one still has to be cautious when the body signals that it is the right time to leave the alarm switched off.

Photos: Shutterstock

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