How can I improve quality and decrease quantity of sleep?
July 27, 2009 9:01 AM   Subscribe

How can I function well on less sleep?

Ancient mystics and mega gurus, tell me: is it possible to become one of those people that functions perfectly well (if not better) on less sleep? Can I exchange, for example, one hour of meditation for 3 hours of sleep? (I'd happily take 20 minutes of meditation for 1 hour of sleep.) What hidden secrets are out there to enable me to sleep, for example, 5 hours a night but still function as usual during the day?

I'm hoping some of you may have had personal experience with a method or system that has helped you sleep less or improve the quality of your sleep. I'm not interested in meds but am definitely open to meditation, specific exercises, foods etc.

(I'm aware of the basics: no food or caffeine before bed, better quality sleep generally, exercise, sunlight during the day, fresh air while sleeping etc.)
posted by HopStopDon'tShop to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Ancient gurus tend to have fairly undemanding days; you will function well on little sleep if the requirements for functioning well are relatively low.
posted by dobie at 9:08 AM on July 27, 2009

posted by jgunsch at 9:10 AM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you're going to sleep less, be aware that humans usually have two sleep cycles a night. When you wake during the middle of one of these, it can make you feel groggy and that general "I did not get enough sleep" feeling.

They typically last about 3.5 hours. Which is why some people can feel wide awake and function almost perfectly with only 4 or so hours of sleep.

So make sure you are getting at least four hours of uninterrupted sleep a night.
posted by royalsong at 9:20 AM on July 27, 2009

Best answer: What hidden secrets are out there to enable me to sleep, for example, 5 hours a night but still function as usual during the day?

I've done this, mostly while I was in college. The number one thing that worked for me by far was to take naps. I didn't need to take one every day, but if I could take a nap for an hour or two in the afternoon or evening it would help me recharge and feel normal even though I was getting less total sleep. Even with that though, over time I would still build up sleep debt from not getting enough sleep over time. The trick is that I found I could "pay back" my sleep debt using less sleep than I missed. So I could get less than normal sleep all week and start feeling fatigued, but get enough sleep on the weekend to get back to normal for the next week. All of that advice is just what works for me though, your mileage may vary.

Ancient gurus tend to have fairly undemanding days; you will function well on little sleep if the requirements for functioning well are relatively low.

To flip that around, you can also function well on little sleep if you're good at functioning when you're not feeling that great. Everyone performs worse when they are sleep deprived, but with practice you can minimize those effects, just like how most armed forces training involves sleep deprivation to help prepare soldiers for adverse conditions in battle.

If you're going to sleep less, be aware that humans usually have two sleep cycles a night. When you wake during the middle of one of these, it can make you feel groggy and that general "I did not get enough sleep" feeling.

Although they are expensive enough that I don't recommend them for most people, I found that a Sleep Tracker watch helped me wake up at the right parts of my sleep cycle so that I didn't feel groggy, especially when I was getting up at different times every day.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:23 AM on July 27, 2009

Oh, btw - IANAD.

And there reason we have two sleep cycles is because we need two sleep cycles.
posted by royalsong at 9:25 AM on July 27, 2009

It is worth it to keep in mind that people are generally very poor judges of their own level of impairment. This is why we have drunk driving laws, and it is also why people will tell you that they function just fine on five hours of sleep.
posted by Nothing at 9:33 AM on July 27, 2009

Not to sound like a huge downer, but anyway, throwing my opinion in.

Speaking as someone who had extremely erratic and non-regular sleeping hours almost all his life, and have only in the past 2 years settled down into a routine: you need those 8 hours of sleep.

Your productivity in your waking hours with 8 hours of sleep will be higher than if you had less than 5 hours of sleep. Which is what you are really aiming for in the end.
posted by the_ancient_mariner at 10:07 AM on July 27, 2009

How can I function well on less sleep?

In my experience, you can't. And I say this as someone who used to be chronically sleep-deprived for a period of two years -- after two years, I noticed my thinking had overall become fuzzier and my memory had suffered, I was shorter-tempered, and I got sick a little easier. You can do it for short bursts of time, maybe -- a week or two, maybe -- but in my experience, trying to permanently adapt to less sleep than your body genuinely needs is possibly going about things the wrong way.

If, however, you're suspecting that you want to improve the overall quality of your sleep in the hopes that maybe you will be more refreshed by the sleep you get, that's a slightly different question. If you think that you could be getting a better quality of sleep, that's always good to look into. Improving your sleep quality may end up with you needing a little less sleep -- but it also may not. For however long you are awake, though, you'd be much more productive.

I'd focus on improving your quality of sleep in general, without trying to reduce the hours you spend asleep.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:22 AM on July 27, 2009

Growth hormone release, cell repair, memory-related tasks, release of other necessary chemicals--one related to appetite--take place during adequate, nightly sleep. A number of reputable studies show the ill effects of inadequate sleep on the immune system. Find other parts of your life-- perhaps your Metafilter life?--from which you can steal more time. Sleep tight!
posted by Elsie at 10:55 AM on July 27, 2009

Best answer: I'll give you one way, which:

1) Has the greatest amount of scientific evidence available for it, as being healthy

2) Will definitely improve your overall health, not just result in less sleep

3) Will sharpen your mental abilities

4) You can expect to sleep 5-6 hours, and be fully rested

So, what's the catch? There are no free lunches, and there's always a price to pay. The catch is that very few people are able to pull it off, and even for those who pull it off, there is a price to pay.

The method is: caloric restriction diet. It works, and it results in less need for sleep for most practitioners. Depending on how much you restrict, your body responds with your needing only 5-6 hours of sleep per night - and you will feel, and be, fully rested.

Problem: very few people can stay on this diet, it can be an expensive lifestyle (because you must buy high quality food) and most experience hunger (though not all).

Here's some info. Make sure to also see the possible risks and negatives of this diet.

I am not a doctor. Should you decide to do this, go slow, read about it first extensively, get medically tested, and again - start slowly, don't just plunge in.
posted by VikingSword at 10:58 AM on July 27, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice.

To further explain my situation, I'm currently obliged to get less sleep thanks to a very small princess that is taking up a lot of time at night and, frankly, a fair amount of time during the day too.

I work from home and would love to get 3 or 4 hours of uninterrupted work done but that would probably mean working while she slept. Which would mean I would get less sleep than ever. (And try as I might it's almost impossible to sleep during the day when she's sleeping, life just doesn't permit that right now.)

Thanks again though, you've given me food for thought. Perhaps I'll try getting through one sleep cycle tonight and then getting up and doing some work instead of going back to sleep.
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 11:02 AM on July 27, 2009

Response by poster: @Elsie - thanks for the tip, I'm looking for a bit of a temporary solution though. Good suggestion about Metafilter of course, though this is only the second time I've been on MeFi in over 6 weeks (which makes me feel a little guilty as I came here just to ask a question and not to give anything back).
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 11:05 AM on July 27, 2009

Best answer: To further explain my situation, I'm currently obliged to get less sleep thanks to a very small princess that is taking up a lot of time at night and, frankly, a fair amount of time during the day too.

Ahhhhh, that explains everything.

I still think that solely focusing on the quality of the sleep you are getting would be the way to go, rather than trying to deliberately reduce your need for sleep -- the number of hours you sleep is going to be reduced for you right now, whether you intend for it or not -- but this is a temporary situation, I assure you, and I also promise that you won't be far gone by the time she starts sleeping through the night. Personally, it took a couple years before I noticed I was having any real detrimental sleep-deprivation effects.

I also learned something pretty interesting -- we may have some kind of coping mechanism that will let us cope with short-term stints of sleep deprivation. I started having a lot of vivid dreams when I started getting "enough sleep" again, and looking into that, I learned that that may be related to the REM state -- there's some evidence that REM sleep helps us process memory, and if we go through an intermediate period of getting less sleep on average, the body in time will compensate by trying to get you into a REM state more often to make up for it (i.e., if you usually get 8 hours, your body may try to put you into a REM state once an hour, but if that gets cut back to 6 hours a night, your body may try to put you into REM states every 45 minutes). Once you start getting "enough sleep" again, it may still take your body a couple weeks to adjust back to its normal REM cycle. I assumed, then, that since we only remember our dreams if we wake straight up out of a REM state, that maybe the increased frequency of REM states just increased the likelihood of my waking up OUT of a REM state, and that's why I was having so many dreams.

So your body may already be doing things to cope with the sleep decrease in the interim, and it will also only be for a few months. If that information helps, there it is.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:27 AM on July 27, 2009

i have been working "overnights" (get up at 2am to start an 8 hour shift at 3am) - and I go to bed at 9pm sharp every night (5 hours as you state) - while I take a nap in the afternoons, here are some tricks of the trade:
it takes 2-3 weeks to adjust to such a pattern. stay very hydrated (the body seems to be "stronger" or more capable when well-lubed so to speak.) and the better physical shape you are in, the better (same reasoning)
learn to fall asleep quickly (tame the monkey mind through a meditative practice)

but at the end of the day, it's a losing battle and it WILL catch up -- i found myself prety much sleeping an entire 3-day weekend -- having had a major crash where my body finally said enough is enough. it was miserable.
posted by mrmarley at 12:07 PM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

I can't function on less sleep in the long term, but if there's a day when I get less sleep than normal, it helps to deal with the individual symptoms of not getting enough sleep. For example, when I don't get enough sleep, my eyes are almost always dried out. Putting in artificial tears actually helps me feel less sleepy because my eyes aren't desperately wanting to close all the time.
posted by IndigoRain at 9:15 PM on July 27, 2009

Polyphasic sleep.

As opposed to normal monophasic sleep, polyphasic sleep is about sleeping several times a day. A few - or under some schedules, all - periods are very short in duration (commonly known as power naps, lasting 15-30 minutes). The point with this is that, properly 'trained', your naps will consist mostly of 'high quality' sleep (what this actually means is debatable, though a commonly held view is that REM sleep is what matters the most).

In short: keep your naps to around 20 minutes and if you are dreaming during this time, you've rested the equivalent of one sleep cycle (roughly 90 minutes).

As for the actual schedule of this there are several variants, all from the extreme √úberman schedule (6 naps every 4 hours), to the easier-to-adapt-to-and-live-with Everyman schedules, consisting of a longer 'core sleep' at night and 1-3 naps throughout the day.

There's a lot to say on this topic, and sleep scientists sort of ignore this area of research, for various reasons. An excellent start is at Puredoxyks polyphasic sleep portal. She has been living polyphasically for the last three or so years, with an average of 4-5 hours each night, and writes convincingly and extensively on polyphasic sleep.
posted by Thorrent at 2:38 AM on July 28, 2009

Response by poster: Just an update in case anyone's looking: I found an article (for sale and free...) on the web on how to sleep less and have more energy. The theory by the author boils down to what many of you have suggested: if you can improve the quality of your sleep, you can sleep less time.

He suggests a few key factors that will determine the quality of your sleep, including the amount of sunlight you are exposed to during the day (the more the better), the importance of hydration and exercise and the benefits of napping and keeping a regular routine for both sleeping and waking up.

I'm trying - no amazing results to report yet but the baby is still waking for midnight feasts so we'll have to wait and see until later to test it properly. In the meantime, I can say that I'm feeling better rested in the mornings. But the baby is also sleeping more than she was 4 weeks ago so...
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 10:19 AM on August 27, 2009

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