The following information presented about sleeping polyphasically without alarm clocks in this blog post contains a lot of interpretations from established polyphasic-related studies as well as anecdotal evidence from the community. There is discrepancy in some areas of information, so read through the blog with some grain of salt.
Questions and queries
One important question is whether it is possible to sleep without alarm clocks while on a polyphasic schedule and successfully adapt. With all the analysis of the mechanics of cortisol secretion pattern and cortisol awakening response (CAR), it then becomes necessary to pose a question: Can polyphasic sleepers manipulate/abuse cortisol secretion mechanics to help prevent oversleeping during adaptation and possibly enable them to sleep without alarms during and after the adaptation phase? To answer these questions, it is necessary to understand that cortisol might not be a sufficient method to “will” oneself to wake up around the time alarm goes off or any time they want (regardless of sleep duration). And to what extent can this mechanics be abused requires more research on certain processes in the human body that are involved with sleep-wake control under polyphasic sleeping conditions.
The theoretical model of self-controlling awakening time
The method to pull this off, which is applicable to any sleep patterns is as follows: Create a simulation of what desired wake time in the next sleep/day would be. This can be done with natural factors (e.g, worry about big assignments, projects, job prospects) or artificial factors (e.g, visualize the desired wake-up time a couple minutes before drifting into sleep). Certain research articles have confirmed that stressful factors (e.g, overloaded work, constant stress and worry) can affect awakening time in the morning (under normal nocturnal monophasic conditions). One or several alarm clocks should be added to aid in polyphasic adaptation to remain on the safe side.
One study pointed out that work overload and chronic worrying cause huge differences in CAR levels during weekdays and weekends – participants who were able to sleep longer only had a slight increase in CAR upon awakening while those who slept less had a sharper increase in CAR1. This result is reasonable because stress from these personal concerns lower sleep quality, resulting in multiple sleep issues, e.g, lighter sleep, disrupted sleep2,3, much earlier wake and feeling unrested upon awakening. As a result, stress factors result in sleep deprivation and affect sleep architecture by decreasing the percentage of vital sleep stages and increasing light sleep. Another study suggested that cortisol secretion during morning hours is significantly higher than afternoon hours in healthy young and old adults4. An explanation provided in this study is that the adrenal glands are more sensitive to adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) in the morning, which is consistent with the previously cited studies on how timing of the circadian rhythm can affect the amount of cortisol secretion.
A practical example in the community
05/03/20 biphasic-x day 11
core: 23:00 – 05:43
no alarm. shorter core. 6h43m. feeling pretty good actually, no inertia.
nap: 16:02 – 16:59
no alarm. fell asleep quickly, once again. (apparently i have napping talent? xd) longer nap, 57m. feeling refreshed.
so today was a little different. I was feeling a bit stressed about the essay I had to write in class today and so I wanted to see if I could wake up early without an alarm to prepare for the essay a bit more. so, I decided to attempt the “internal alarm clock technique” that General mentioned and did in his biphasic-x logs. I visualised waking up after 7h (so at 6am) as i fell asleep. Surprisingly, it actually worked! I woke up after 6h43m, a little short of 7h, and I spent my morning studying. After school, I took the nap a little earlier than usual, and because my core had been shortened, the nap was longer, kind of like a siesta. my alertness during the day wasn’t any different than normal. this is really promising, this biphasic-x has crazy potential; looking forward to explore it further
Tst was a little shorter today, so we’ll see if anything changes. I predict that I’ll sleep a little longer tomorrow as a sort of “recovery”.
– Weaver (16), reported from the Discord.
This is a typical scenario carried out successfully by a biphasic sleeper in the community. The schedule of choice is a non-reducing biphasic pattern (no sleep reduction compared to monophasic baseline). The sleeper did not use any extra alarm clocks to facilitate awakening at the desired waking hour, and pulled it off effortlessly. This was also the first attempt at using a “stress response” to ease waking up (and subjectively it was a good awakening with no sleep inertia reported). However, there are many questions related to the procedure:
- Is this a healthy way to sleep when stress is required to induce wake-up time?
- What about other polyphasic schedules with shorter core sleep(s) and multiple naps? Does this technique work on naps and shorter sleeps?
- Is it only cortisol or there are some other hidden processes that facilitate a refreshing wake for the polyphasic sleeper above?
- Can this be tried everyday to help adapt to a polyphasic schedule? And what happens to cortisol levels during the whole time?
These are some possible questions one would ask, because sleeping in a stressful environment is not healthy1. Though in the case of Weaver, he did not use this technique in the nap, and instead napped until he woke up naturally. It can be speculated that cortisol levels rose sooner than usual to set Weaver’s earlier wake time, which is also consistent with the study on the difference between weekdays and weekends’ CAR1. However, while this mind trick has been proven to work in non-reducing biphasic schedules anecdotally, the same cannot be concluded for other polyphasic schedules with more sleep reduction. Moreover, it is doubtful whether this technique can, or should be used frequently as a tool to wake up by tapping into the stress-response system.
A well-established circadian rhythm cue, light, has been demonstrated to cause an elevation in CAR intensity in the morning5,6. At first sight, one would predict that setting up artificial blue light in the morning can ease the awakening process (as it has been shown to reduce sleep inertia in the morning)7. Aside from artificial blue light, the natural source of light from dawn time in the local area can help increase the level of cortisol in the body some time before awakening, facilitating waking up. This can potentially be useful for certain scheduling options (e.g, Dual Core sleep with a morning core, Everyman sleep with a REM nap in REM peak).
More extreme polyphasic schedules
Will the cortisol mind trick work in non-biphasic schedules? The answer is indeterminate. Taken from the some polyphasic-related studies on CAR, these are some notable points:
- Short naps and late naps in the day (afternoon/evening time) do not trigger cortisol release prior to awakening especially if those contain only light sleep or brief SWS3,5,8. However, there are potentially exceptions in repartitioned REM naps that are close to morning hours.
- Sleep blocks full of REM appear to be coincidental with CAR and cortisol increase after the morning wake, suggesting that there is a strong relationship between morning and cortisol release, regardless of sleep patterns5,8.
- Longer sleeps during the day (morning/early afternoon) consistently generate CARs5,8.
What could be interpreted from these points is that when CAR is not triggered in the case of short naps, which can be seen in the first couple days of adaptation where light sleep percentage is high, using the trick will be pointless. Sleep quality will not be “efficient” yet, and waking up is easy on its own thanks to a high percentage of light sleep in each sleep block. When the adaptation progresses into tough periods where more oversleeps occur, the cortisol trick may or may not be effective at all – zombie mode can shut down willpower and human supervision would often be required to sustain an extreme polyphasic pattern (e.g, Uberman). When sleep deprivation starts kicking in after a couple nights of sleep deprivation, certain studies have shown that cortisol levels might be hindered upon morning awakening and instead build up in the evening4,9,. This complicates the mind trick where it is impossible to manipulate cortisol level by the time the nap/core ends. In fact, there have been no studies so far that have been able to directly elucidate how humans can use their subconscious mind to control cortisol to facilitate waking up whenever they want.
Can all REM or SWS naps be assumed to release cortisol upon awakening, especially after adaptation is completed? The answer is also inconclusive. The Uberman study with 1 subject lasting for 5 weeks without cognitive impairment after the study and no change in cortisol secretion pattern10 suggests that the body is forced to adapt to a new sleeping regime while retaining the circadian rhythm as on a monophasic schedule. The morning nap in REM peak on Uberman is predicted to cause a CAR, since it was described to be similar to the CAR on monophasic sleep (morning time). However, the sample size was too small (1 subject) and 5 weeks might not be enough to completely change the cortisol secretion pattern; despite this, the outcome is also consistent with a polyphasic study where circadian rhythm of 24-hour cortisol secretion is very resistant to change5. Thus, as of now, REM naps around dawn on a polyphasic schedule are expected to produce CAR instances consistently, but it is uncertain whether REM naps around noon or afternoon are capable of doing the same thing. At the same time, a sleep block full of SWS may or may not produce any CAR occurrences, although it is less likely for SWS sleep blocks to achieve the same as REM sleep blocks; this observation is based on the results from the aforementioned studies that cortisol secretion is suppressed during SWS.
The last point about the cortisol trick that is worth mentioning is that overthinking or overvisualizing about waking up at a specific time may increase sleep onset latency because of wandering thoughts that keep the mind active rather than helping the brain enter the slow-wave state for rest. This state of daydreaming can affect the sleep quality of all sleep blocks, regardless of whether it is a core or a nap. Stress will continually build up with more accumulated sleep deprivation, which is bound to wreck alertness and productivity.
Anecdotally, so far the cortisol trick is not a common practice that adapted polyphasic sleepers (at least on Everyman and Dual Core sleep patterns) have reported to make the adaptation process easier. Thus, when adaptation is completed, there is even less of a reason for them to resort to this trick, because they have been familiar with the designed sleep-wake hours on their own schedules. It also becomes common that these sleepers are able to wake up on their own even around the 20-minute mark of a nap or earlier, or a core sleep of varying lengths. However, the same premature wakes cannot be verified for nap-only schedules (e.g, Uberman, Dymaxion), due to their absurd sleep reduction.
In polyphasic schedules with at least some kind of core sleep, it is normally observed that alarm clocks are still used post-adaptation, but they are more of a back-up measure – oversleeping does not usually happen by that point with normal sleep hygiene practice (except conditions that result in an increased sleep need such as intense exercising, drinking, overeating and sickness). After the adaptation period, these sleepers sometimes even wake up briefly before the alarm goes off. Consistent anecdotal reports from adapted polyphasic sleepers hint that CAR instances are stabilized and possibly activated earlier before awakening to ease waking up. Thus, when the adaptation is completed, the cortisol trick is not needed anymore as the body has become accustomed to the new sleep pattern.
Due to the complicated nature of how CAR is generated when there are changes in sleep architecture, currently it is not conclusive how this trick can be used to wake the body up by the scheduled awakening time on a polyphasic schedule. It is also largely unknown how much potential the CAR trick has. The seemingly common successes observed on biphasic schedules (mainly in the non-reducing form) suggest that CAR can be used as a tool to avoid oversleeping and sustaining a polyphasic schedule during the adaptation period at least in some polyphasic schedules with a core sleep, alongside the assistance of alarm clocks. There are also certain risks involved with the CAR trick, so polyphasic sleepers should be cautious about attempting to incorporate this strategy.
Main author: GeneralNguyen
Page last updated: 30 April 2020
- Schlotz, Wolff, et al. “Perceived Work Overload and Chronic Worrying Predict Weekend-Weekday Differences in the Cortisol Awakening Response.” Psychosomatic Medicine. 2004;66(2):207–214. [PMC]
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