There’s the good and the ugly when it comes to sleep hacks for insomnia.

Let’s start with the ugly.

There is nothing that makes my eyes roll further back in my head than when I hear the phrase ‘sleep hacking’. This is especially true when it comes to sleep hacks for insomnia.

If you aren’t familiar with sleep hacking, it’s when people attempt to sleep in a pattern other than one block of time at night. It is usually associated with people trying to overcome the many, many years of biological evolution. It’s a silly attempt find something better than the standard block of sleep so they can “optimise” their day. However, pretty much anything that is labeled as a sleep hack utter nonsense marketed to you like any other gimmick. Alternatively, it’s a cultural norm that, a lot of times, doesn’t work anymore.

Let’s explore.

Polyphasic sleepthe worst insomnia sleep hack

spongebob mocking sleep hacks for insomnia

I die a little inside when I hear someone say they’ve found the holy grail of sleep through polyphasic sleep. It’s almost as bad as someone bragging that they found some “cute little local bar in Mexico”. And it was totally a Señor Frogs. 

It’s old news. Like, over 500 year old news. 

If you’re not familiar with polyphasic sleep, here’s the deal:

Polyphasic sleep is where “biohackers” (ugh) are trying to find ways to sleep the least amount of time possible in small blocks, multiple times per day. The end goal is usually to to optimise their schedule for “ultimate productivity”. 

Some examples include:

⮞ Napping for 20 minutes every 4 hours, for a total of 2 hours of sleep per day 

⮞ Having a 2-4 hour “core sleep” at night with three separate 20-minute naps during the day

These schedules were based on extreme situations where broken sleep was necessary.

The first example is from the military in combat situations. This is when they were literally unable to sleep for extended periods of time1. So instead, they sleep in multiple 20 minute blocks. This helped their cognitive functioning when compared to not sleeping at all, but is most certainly not sustainable. They accumulated incredible amounts of sleep debt even after a few days. 

The other is with NASA astronauts in space2. Having a regular sleep schedule in line with the 24 hour rotation of the earth is pretty hard when you’re floating above the atmosphere. Plus, the lack of gravity makes it difficult to feel settled. So they typically have a core sleep of a few hours then nap when they can.

So unless you are a Marine in combat or an astronaut where schedules are extreme, I don’t think it’s worthwhile to even consider such sleep schedules.

Biphasic Sleep

Aside from polyphasic sleep, there is biphasic sleep where people sleep in two blocks. When someone is talking about it, they are usually referring to a specific period in history from the pre-industrial era in Western Europe where people practiced biphasic sleep. 

This is when people would go to bed shortly after dusk, wake up for an hour or two in the middle of night. Then they’d go back to sleep again until dawn. During that one to two hour wake time, people would wake up and visit neighbours! Or have a pint at the pub! Or have sex! What a grand old time, eh?

Here’s the problem with that. 

We don’t live in a world of no devices and, ya know, no electricity and light bulbs. As mentioned previously in the sleep hygiene section, light keeps us up for longer than we normally would have been if there were no light. 

You can certainly reduce the amount of light coming into your eyes when it comes to your home or screens, and you should. But there’s still ambient light from street lights, cars, and other homes. If you live in a rural area, maybe you do have complete darkness after a certain time. But it still doesn’t matter because you don’t live in a world that runs solely on the rise and fall of the sun. So it’s simply not practical to go to bed at 6 or 7pm when you’re an adult living in the 21st century. 

Of course, there are several countries around the world where the cultural norm is conducive to being a biphasic sleeper. Look at Spain, for example. They have a siesta from 2pm-5pm. Here, people usually don’t start work until 10am, but they have their siesta and work late into the evening.

Everyone’s day is shifted, and their bedtimes at night are typically much later. While it’s an ingrained biphasic schedule, it’s again based on the preindustrial era where there was no electricity or air conditioning. It should also be noted that a significant percentage of Spaniards want to banish the siesta because it doesn’t fit with the modern working day3.

Additionally, biphasic sleep relies on naps. As an insomniac, naps should be avoided. Your circadian rhythm and sleep/wake cycles are completely out of whack and need to be recalibrated. These schedules simply aren’t feasible when you are trying to learn how to sleep again.

The 20/8 Split

The other sleep ‘hack’ schedule that floats around is based on 28 hour “days”. Essentially what you do here is stay awake for 20 hours and sleep for 8 (or do a 19/9 split). So if you wake up at 6am, you stay awake until 2am and sleep until 10am4. Then you don’t go to bed until 6am the following day. However, one study showed a cumulative sleep loss over six weeks and reduction in daytime performance with the 20/8 schedule5. In other words, it’s not sustainable. 

The whole point of doing anything other than monophasic sleep (except where it’s the social norm) is that it supposedly gives you more time to do all the things you need and want to do. But your sleep needs to work with how you actually live your life. Not some abstract ideal of how our world ‘should’ operate. Though your life will revolve around sleep for a bit while you are overcoming insomnia, it shouldn’t stay like that. Your sleep should support your life, not rule it. 

Can you learn to feel rested on less sleep?

It should also be noted that you can’t sleep less. I often encounter people who say they sleep a full night and don’t have insomnia. But still, they want to learn to live off of 5-6 hours per night and still feel rested. This just isn’t physically possible unless you are one of the few with a specific mutation of the DEC2 gene6 or ADRB1 gene7. For now, your goal is to sleep your average. But know that it’s just temporary since you won’t feel rested on 5-6 hours of sleep. The goal is to get you to 7-8 (maybe even 9) hours. 

In short, you can’t change the constant movement of time or how the world operates. The world spins and the sun rises and falls just as it always has for billions of years. As I’ve tried to point out so far in this course, we are all biological beings whether you like it or not. We have many millennia of evolution as humans that resulted in natural circadian rhythms. And for as long as we are humans living on planet earth, we might as well roll with it and sleep at night – in one block. 

A Note on Sleep Trackers 

Sleep trackers do not work. Not even the most expensive ones you can buy. They are exceptionally limited devices that only measure when you are moving or not8. As an insomniac, I’m sure you’ve laid completely still for hours at a time yet remained wide awake. A sleep tracker would record that as sleep. Conversely, it might record that you’re awake when you’re in fact sleeping, especially during lighter phases of sleep where you do move more. 

If you are actually interested to see how you are sleeping, it’s best to participate in a sleep study where they can record your brain waves. It’s certainly a more complete set of data that can help you understand where you are with sleep better than a commercial watch ever could.

Actual ‘Sleep Hacks’ for Insomnia

The only true ‘sleep hacks’ are good habits (aka sleep hygiene) and sleep restriction.