Biphasic and Polyphasic Sleep: What Are They and When Are They Recommended?

Available data indicate that biphasic and polyphasic sleep were the normal form of sleep before industrialism came along. Those with insomnia problems may want to try one of these options.
Biphasic and Polyphasic Sleep: What Are They and When Are They Recommended?
Leidy Mora Molina

Reviewed and approved by the nurse Leidy Mora Molina.

Written by Edith Sánchez

Last update: 25 May, 2023

Biphasic and polyphasic sleep are alternative modalities to traditional sleep patterns. Typically, people have a monophasic sleep pattern, that is, they sleep only once during the night.

However, many people also have a biphasic and polyphasic sleep pattern. This means that they sleep two or more times during the day. This is also known as split sleep.

There are arguments for and against this form of sleep. Great figures in history, such as Franz Kafka, Nikola Tesla or Leonardo Da Vinci had these alternative patterns. All of them thought that this way they potentiated their abilities. Is it true?

The most common sleep patterns

Monophasic sleep is what is equivalent to normal sleep. However, we should point out that this type of sleep only became a common pattern after the Industrial Revolution. Before that, biphasic and polyphasic sleep were more common.

Generally speaking, a person’s sleep pattern is determined by the circadian rhythms. This causes the hours of sleep and wakefulness to be one way or the other. However, not everyone is awake during the hours of sunshine and not everyone is asleep during the hours of darkness.

A normal adult should sleep a minimum of 7 hours a day. Yet, one study found that some people with a mutation in the ADBR1 gene can sleep 6.5 hours without any detrimental effect.

Likewise, the military and other groups have different patterns, with no evidence of any harm from this. In fact, many report that this allows them to maintain attention and alertness in better condition.

What is biphasic sleep?

Biphasic sleep has to do with sleeping in two distinct periods. According to 2016 research, this was the predominant mode before the Industrial Revolution in most cultures on the planet.

There are records that in several Western societies, it was customary to sleep in two distinct stages, separated by a period of wakefulness of one hour. This period was used to pray, interpret dreams, be creative, have sex, or visit neighbors.

Thomas Wehr is a researcher of these phenomena and conducted a study on the subject. Eight volunteers were confined in a room for a month. They had 14 hours of darkness each day.

Their sleep patterns began to change and, in the end, they adopted the biphasic sleep pattern. That is, they slept for 4 hours, woke up for 2 or 3 hours, and then went back to sleep for another 4 hours.

A man sleeping.
Sleep patterns can’t always be considered normal or abnormal. It depends on the body’s reaction to the circadian rhythms.

Types of biphasic sleep

There are several ways to organize biphasic sleep. The most common mode is known as a nap, or siesta, which is still very commonly practiced in countries such as Spain or Greece. In general, we can speak of 3 types of biphasic sleep:

  • A short siesta: 6 hours of sleep at night and a 20-minute nap in the middle of the day.
  • A long nap: 5 hours of sleep at night and a long nap in the middle of the day, between an hour and an hour and a half.
  • Radical biphasic: This consists of dividing sleep time in two. Generally, a period of 4 hours followed by 2 or 3 hours of wakefulness, and then another 4 hours of sleep.

Advantages and disadvantages

There’s evidence for and against biphasic sleep. Short and long naps have been shown to promote memory, learning ability, alertness, and mood. However, they may not be a good idea if they affect nighttime sleep later, especially in children.

When you don’t get enough sleep or your sleep quality is poor, you increase the likelihood of disorders such as cognitive difficulties, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. In fact, some insomnia problems may be the effect of trying to incorporate monophasic sleep in people who require biphasic rest.

What is polyphasic sleep?

Polyphasic sleep is less common and involves sleeping in more than two segments per day. Most mammals have this pattern, although primates are monophasic.

Some think that optimal rest can be achieved with this mode. Others, on the other hand, view it with skepticism.

Types of polyphasic sleep

There are several types of polyphasic sleep. Many people create their own sleep segmentations at their whim or convenience. However, there are 3 that are predominant:

  • Dymaxion schedule: This involves taking 30-minute naps every 6 hours. This yields a total of 2 hours of napping per day. It was practiced by the American architect Buckminster Fuller for 2 years and doctors certified that he was healthy.
  • Uberman’s schedule: This involves taking a 20-minute nap every 4 hours for a total of 3 hours of sleep per day. It’s the most rigid form of polyphasic sleep.
  • Everyman’s schedule: This corresponds to taking a 3-hour block of sleep at night, with 3 20-minute naps spread throughout the day. There are numerous variations in the timing of the block and naps.

Advantages and disadvantages

There’s no scientific evidence on the advantages of polyphasic sleep. However, there’s research carried out with sailors, according to which it would be a good alternative to circumvent lapses of sleep deprivation for external reasons, such as travel or war.

Experts agree that polyphasic sleep can cause effects similar to those of sleep deprivation. This increases the risk of disorders such as obesity, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, psychosis, heart disease, diabetes, and obstructive apnea.

Sleepy woman.
The chosen sleep patterns could lead to disorders if we don’t adapt, such as memory problems.

Adopting biphasic or polyphasic sleep

Many people report benefits from biphasic and polyphasic sleep. However, a change in sleep patterns should be done with care.

Most doctors say that it’s very important to get the necessary hours of sleep, even if they’re distributed differently. In this, as in so many aspects, there can be big differences between one and the other.

As a general rule, if a person sleeps at night without interruptions, there’s no reason for them to try to adopt biphasic or polyphasic sleep. On the other hand, if someone has difficulty sleeping, it may be a good idea to try these modalities.

The adaptation phase to the new sleep patterns usually lasts between 2 and 3 weeks. If any discomfort is experienced, it’s best to return to the previous pattern. When it comes to sleep, there’s still a lot to discover. The most important indicator is feeling well-rested after your sleep.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Shi G, Xing L, Wu D, Bhattacharyya BJ, Jones CR, McMahon T, Chong SYC, Chen JA, Coppola G, Geschwind D, Krystal A, Ptáček LJ, Fu YH. A Rare Mutation of β1-Adrenergic Receptor Affects Sleep/Wake Behaviors. Neuron. 2019 Sep 25;103(6):1044-1055.e7. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2019.07.026. Epub 2019 Aug 28. PMID: 31473062; PMCID: PMC6763376.
  • Ekirch A. R. (2016). Segmented Sleep in Preindustrial Societies. Sleep, 39(3), 715–716.
  • Brown, W. A., MD. (2020, 16 noviembre). Acknowledging Preindustrial Patterns of Sleep May Revolutionize Approach to Sleep Dysfunction. Psychiatric Times.
  • Filardi, M., Morini, S., & Plazzi, G. (2020). Pre-Race Sleep Management Strategy and Chronotype of Offshore Solo Sailors. Nature and science of sleep, 12, 263–269.
  • Pedemonte, M., & Velluti, R. A. (2005). La vigilia y el sueño.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.