Is sleep really necessary?

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 per cent 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 was 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 four hours. (A monophasic sleep pattern would be your typical eight-hour block of sleep every 24 hours.)

Some converts to Uberman claim that after an adjustment period, usually lasting anywhere from a week to three weeks, they feel no less alert than they would have if they’d been clocking eight 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 the Mona Lisa and The 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 licence and figure out my taxes.

I was encouraged in this pursuit by Dr Claudio Stampi, the editor of Why We Nap: Evolution, Chronobiology, and Functions of Polyphasic and Ultrashort Sleep. In the early Eighties, 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 doctor has been dodging interviewers (like me) and seeking ways to reduce sleep.

I asked sleep-medicine specialist Dr W. Christopher Winter, the medical director of the Sleep Medicine Centre at Martha Jefferson Hospital in Virginia, if he considered any of this to be a good idea.

He didn’t. “All kinds of things could happen to individuals who are sleep 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, says Winter, certain theories even tack death onto that list of results. “The sleepless individual is probably cold [due to increased energy expenditure], so hypothermia could be an eventual cause of death,” he explains. “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. Dr Sara Mednick, the author of Take 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 learnt 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. At the time, I also had a heap of TV to catch up on. So I scheduled any appointments or meetings around my naps (at 2am, 6am, 10am, 2pm, 6pm and 10pm). I beefed up my internet movies subscription and bought a “learn Spanish” CD, 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 2:30am screening of Raging Bull. The movie’s final 20 minutes were accompanied by birdsong. I took a dawn stroll around the neighbourhood (a first while sober) and returned to my apartment just in time for my 6am 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, 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 criticise it. “Getting a total of two hours of sleep per 24 on a chronic basis would seem to me to be impossible,” says 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 six months until a job change knocked her off. Via email, 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 function at a high level,” she wrote. Her suggestions: cleaning my apartment, darning socks. Not quite the brain-stimulating tasks I had in mind. 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 crap?”. 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 twice 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 mouth ulcers, the beginnings of a cold and an outbreak of pimples. Meanwhile, my circle of friends agreed that I was edgy and irritable and looked like death.

I was in no state to write a Nobel-prize-winning novel. I joylessly stared off into space for hours. As Winter theorises, I might have been sleeping during those floaty periods without even realising 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 wellbeing 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 robbed me of the last 5-10 per cent 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 difficult to keep track of what day it was and I was never sure when to shower, change clothes or brush my teeth. I did, however, establish a pattern whereby I ate immediately after a nap. On the six-meals-a-day plan, I was eating about 30 per cent more food, but by the end of the third week, I discovered that I’d lost three kilograms, or about five per cent of my body weight.

This was no surprise to Winter. “Rats deprived of sleep dramatically increased their eating despite losing weight before they died, in about 11-22 days,” he said. “It is thought that much of the rats’ weight loss came via increased activity to maintain body temperature.”

Week four saw the return of my mouth ulcers. This physical downturn coincided with my realisation that, on the Uberman plan, I had more time than I knew what to do with. Working for myself 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 six 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.

My capitulation at 5pm on my final day was sweet indeed. So amazing was the feeling of my body hitting the mattress that I couldn’t stop myself from laughing. Within 30 seconds, I was out.

I awoke at 8:30am 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 when he saw me. “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 learnt that my favourite Spanish word is siesta – but as a sleep supplement, not a substitute.