Formula for good sleep: free running sleep

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This text is part of: "Science of sleep" by Piotr Wozniak (2017)

Free sleep is good sleep

There is a little-publicized formula that acts as a perfect cure for people who experience continual or seasonal problems with sleep entrainment. This formula is free running sleep!

Free running sleep is defined by the abstinence from all forms of sleep control such as alarm clocks, sleeping pills, alcohol, caffeine, etc. Free running sleep is a sleep that comes naturally at the time when it is internally triggered by the combination of your homeostatic and circadian components. In other words, free running sleep occurs when you go to sleep only then when you are truly sleepy (independent of the relationship of this moment to the actual time of day). Night sleep on a free running schedule lasts as long as the body needs, and ends in natural awakening. No form of sleep disruption is allowed. In particular, any use of an alarm clock is the cardinal violation of the free running sleep principle.

The greatest shortcoming of free running sleep is that it will often result in cycles longer than 24 hours. This eliminates free running sleep from a wider use in society. However, if you would like to try free running sleep, you could hopefully do it on vacation. You may need a vacation that lasts longer than two weeks before you understand your circadian cycle. Even if you cannot afford free running sleep in non-vacation setting, trying it once will greatly increase your knowledge about natural sleep cycles and your own cycle in particular. You should also know that it is possible to entrain one's sleep to a desired sleep bracket (e.g. early rising). However, the entrainment requires iron self-discipline and the religious adherence to the entrainment rules.

Free running sleep

Free running sleep is sleep that is not artificially controlled to match our schedules and desires. It is a sleep without alarm clocks and sleeping pills. Mankind has practised free running sleep for as long as it existed. Our ancestors were gently encouraged to retire to bedtime at sunset, and would wake up naturally, probably after having spent no less than 8-10 hours in bed (see also Segmented sleep). All departures from that healthy practise were an imposition of culture, habit, religion, and/or tradition. Despite our ancestors' lives being fraught with danger, superstition, wars and disease, we should pause and ponder the marvellous impact of this naturally undisturbed sleep on their health. The arrival of fire and candlelight did not provide much incentive to stay up except for those few that have always had much to do in the evening: the first bookworms and artists. Only the genius of Edison and the like brought in the true sleep scourge: the electricity. With the wide dissemination of printed matter and electric lighting, millions would find their evening book far more interesting than sleep. Enter the web. In 2012 AD, we have an endless spectrum of entertainments and distractions that lure everyone away from bed and healthy slumber. More and more, we want to squeeze sleep into designer brackets. We wish to fall asleep at a specific time, and wake up at a specific time. Amazingly, a big chunk of the population does not realize that this is not possible without a detriment to health! Luckily, nearly everyone has the intuition that sleep is vital for healthy living. Those who would want to dispense with sleep altogether form a tiny minority. Nearly all creative people would wish to wake up fresh and ready for action. Preferably at a specified time. The same people wish to be less tired in the evening before sleep, and fall asleep instantly. Preferrably at a specified time. Let me then state it in bold print:

If we exclude unhealthy techniques:

  1. It is not possible to fall asleep whenever we wish.
  2. It is not possible to wake up whenever we wish.
  3. It is not possible to eliminate evening sleepiness.

However disappointing this might be, everyone would do better in life if those truths were assimilated. If we agree to wake up naturally at one's body's preferred time, it should be possible to be fresh and dandy from the waking moment. However, a decline in mental capacity over the waking day is inevitable. It is natural. Midday dip in alertness is also inevitable. And the optimum bedtime is hardly movable. If you try to advance it, you will likely experience insomnia. If you try to delay it, you will cut down on sleep and possibly wake up unrefreshed. If you try to wake up earlier than your natural hour, e.g. by employing an alarm clock, you will wake up with a degree of sleep deprivation that will affect the value of sleep for your learning and creativity. Don't be fooled by the illusive boost in alertness caused by the alarm clock. Yes. This happens to some people, some of the time. This perpetuates the myth that it is possible to wake up fresher with the ring of the alarm.

There is only one formula for healthy and refreshing sleep: Go to sleep only when you are very tired. Not earlier. Not later. Wake up naturally without an alarm clock.

This simple formula is called free running sleep. For many people, after years of sleep abuse, even free running sleep can be tricky. It will take a while to discover one's own body's rules and to accept them. You will know that you execute your free running sleep correctly if it takes no more than 5 min. to fall asleep (without medication, alcohol or other intervention), and if you wake up pretty abruptly with the sense of refreshment. Being refreshed in the morning cannot be taken for granted. Even minor misalignment of sleep and the circadian phase will take the refreshed feeling away. After months or weeks of messy sleep, some circadian variables might be running in different cycles and free running sleep will not be an instant remedy. It may take some time to regulate it well enough to accomplish its goals. It cannot even be excluded that after years of shift-work or jetlag, some brain cells in the sleep control centers might have died out making it even harder to achieve well aligned refreshing sleep. In addition to all these caveats, stress is one of the major factors contributing to destroying the fabric of sleep. In free running sleep, stress will make you go to sleep later, take longer to fall asleep, and wake up faster, far less refreshed. Combating stress is one of the most important things in everyone's life for the sake of longevity and productivity.

Partners and spouses can free run their sleep in separate cycles, but they will often be surprised to find out that it is easier to synchronize with each other than with the rest of the world (esp. if they have similar interests and daily routines). If they are co-sleeping, one of the pair will usually get up slightly earlier and work as a strong zeitgeber for the other. The problem will appear only when the length of the naturally preferred sleep cycles differs substantially between the two. In such cases, instead of being a zeitgeber, the other person becomes a substitute for an alarm clock.

Even if you are not convinced, you should try free running sleep to better understand the concept of the sleep phase, and how the sleep phase is affected by various lifestyle factors. You will often notice that your supposed sleep disorder disappears! Note that the free running sleep period is not solely genetic. Various factors in the daily schedule are able to shorten or lengthen the period. Of the obvious ones, bright light in the morning or melatonin in the evening may shorten the cycle. Exciting activities in the evening will lengthen it. The period changes slightly with seasons. It will also change when you leave on vacation. It often gets shorter with age. Try free running sleep to understand your own sleep parameters. This will help you synchronize with the rest of the world, or at least get quality refreshing sleep. Please read more about free running sleep in this article. Throwing away the alarm clock is not a panacea. You may need to learn a bit about the hygiene of sleep.

Should we free run our sleep?

As it will be discussed later, free running sleep can be used to solve a number of sleep disorders except for those where there is an underlying organic disorder that disrupts natural sleep mechanisms. However, you will often hear two arguments against adopting the use of free running sleep:

  • Argument 1 - free running sleep will often result in a day that is longer than 24 hours. This ultimately leads to sleeping in atypical hours. This seems to go against the natural 24-hour cycle of light and darkness. Less often, the cycle will be less than 24 hours
  • Argument 2 - sleep can be compared to eating. Your body will always try to get more than it actually needs. This will result in spending more time in sleep than necessary. In other words, free running sleep is time-inefficient

Argument 1: Phase shifts

It is true that free running sleep will often run against the natural cycle of light and darkness. However, the departure from the natural rhythm is a direct consequence of using electric lighting and modern lifestyle. Our ancestors could expect little but darkness and boredom past sunset. Prolonged darkness and boredom are quite efficient in lulling humans to sleep. If we stubbornly refuse to use electric lighting beyond a certain hour, we will still find it difficult to run away from the excitements of modern lifestyle. To shut your brain to sleep efficiently in the early evening you would probably need to quit your current job and pick some uninspiring one, give up your intense family life, give up your hobbies and interests, give up the Internet, evening TV, etc. We live more stressful and more exciting lives than our grandparents. Turning the lights off in the early evening would probably only be wasteful. Additionally, shortsightedness, the ailment of the information age, makes us less sensitive to the light zeitgeber and artificially prolongs the circadian cycle. There are a number of downsides to free running sleep. The worst shortcoming is a difficulty in establishing an activity cycle that could be well synchronized with the rest of the world. Stabilization of the cycle is possible with self-discipline in adhering to cycle-reset rules such as morning exercise, bright light, sleep protective zone in the evening, etc.

Argument 2: Excessive sleeping

It is true that people who try to free run their sleep may find themselves sleeping outrageously long in the very beginning. This, however, will not last in a healthy individual as long sleep is a body's counter-reaction to various sleep deficits resulting from sleep deprivation. Unlike it is the case with foods, there does not seem to be any evolutionary advantage to getting extra sleep on days when we can afford to sleep longer. In the course of evolution, we have developed a tendency to overeat. This is a protection against periods when food is scarce. Adipose tissue works as a survival kit for bad times. However, considering the function of sleep, the demand for sleep should be somewhat proportional to the amount of new learning received on preceding days. In ancient times, we did not have exam days as opposed to lazy days. Consequently, the link between learning and demand for sleep is quite weak. The body clock will still make us sleep 7-8 hours on nights following the days of total inaction. Secondly, every extra minute of sleep might improve the quality of neural wiring in the brain. Sleep would better be compared to drinking rather than eating. We do not have much capacity to survive without drinking due to our poor water storage ability. Similarly, we cannot sleep in advance in preparation for a double all-nighter before an exam or important deadline. The claim that free running sleep increases the natural need for sleep is false! If you happen to sleep longer in free running sleep, it indicates that you were sleep deprived before running free. This longer sleep stage is transient. On occasion, if you go to sleep very early, you can also clock an excess number of sleeping hours. For more see Excessive sleeping.

In my view, everyone should always free run his or her sleep unless it makes it impossible to function in society along one's chosen profession, specialization, education, etc., or where it makes it impossible to take care of the young ones.

Free running sleep is stressless

Someone suggested that if any change is stressful, switching to free running sleep would be stressful too. The opposite is the case. Perhaps after an exclusion of the initial adjustment period in which people with lesser understanding of chronobiology make mistakes that may result in a decline in their sleep quality. Saying that any change is stressful is a generalization that goes too far. Changing your T-shirts daily does not imply stress. In addition, the degree of change is important. The same change can produce overstress or be a welcome factor in life depending on its degree. Letting your sleep free run does not imply any degree of stress, unless free running sleep itself produces changes in your schedule that might be stressful. If you eat your moderate meals frequently when you feel hungry, you are likely to experience less stressful change than when you eat them at pre-set lunch hours. Free running behaviors, by definition, free your organism to adapt behaviors to body's internal needs. As such, these can be considered anti-stress factors. It refers equally to sleep, eating habits, exercise, and other physiological needs

Free running sleep algorithm

  1. Start with a meticulous log in which you will record the hours in which you go to sleep and wake up in the morning. If you take a nap during the day, put it in the log as well (even if the nap takes as little as 1-3 minutes). The log will help you predict the optimum sleeping hours and improve the quality of sleep. Once your self-research phase is over, you will accumulate sufficient experience to need the log no longer; however, you will need it at the beginning to better understand your rhythms. You can use SleepChart to simplify the logging procedure and help you read your circadian preferences.
  2. Go to sleep only then when you are truly tired. You should be able to sense that your sleep latency is likely to be less than 5-10 minutes. If you do not feel confident you will fall asleep within 10-20 minutes, do not go to sleep! If this requires you to stay up until early in the morning, so be it!
  3. Be sure nothing disrupts your sleep! Do not use an alarm clock! If possible, sleep without a bed partner (at least in the self-research period). Keep yourself well isolated from sources of noise and from rapid changes in lighting.
  4. Avoid stress during the day, esp. in the evening hours. This is particularly important in the self-research period while you are still unsure how your optimum sleep patterns look. Stress hormones have a powerful impact on the timing of sleep. Stressful thoughts are also likely to keep you up at the time when you shall be falling asleep.
  5. After a couple of days, try to figure out the length of your circadian cycle. If you arrive at a number that is greater than 24 hours, your free running sleep will result in going to sleep later on each successive day. This will ultimately make you sleep during the day at times. This is why you may need a vacation to give free running sleep an honest test. Days longer than 24 hours are pretty normal, and you can stabilize your pattern with properly timed signals such as light and exercise. This can be very difficult if you are a DSPS type.
  6. Once you know how much time you spend awake on average, make a daily calculation of the expected hour at which you will go to sleep (I use the term expected bedtime and expected retirement hour to denote times of going to bed and times of falling asleep, which in free running sleep are almost the same). This calculation will help you predict the sleep onset. On some days you may feel sleepy before the expected bedtime. Do not fight sleepiness, go to sleep even if this falls 2-3 hours before your expected bedtime. Similarly, if you do not feel sleepy at the expected bedtime, stay up, keep busy and go to sleep later, even if this falls 2-4 hours after your expected bedtime.

Cardinal mistakes in free running sleep

  • do not go to sleep before you are sleepy enough - this may result in falling asleep for 10-30 minutes, and then waking up for 2-4 hours. Ultimately you can experience an artificial shift forward in the entire cycle!
  • unless for natural reasons (no sleepiness), do not go to sleep well after the expected bedtime. This will result in missing the period of maximum circadian sleepiness. Your sleep will be shorter and less refreshing. Your measurements will be less regular and you will find it harder to predict the optimum timing of sleep in following days
  • do not take a nap later than 7-8 hours from waking. Late naps are likely to affect the expected bedtime and disrupt your cycle. If you feel sleepy in the evening, you will have to wait for the moment when you believe you will be able to sleep throughout the night

Sleep logging tips

In free running conditions, it should not be difficult to record the actual hours of sleep. In conditions of entrainment failure, you may find it hard to fall asleep, or wake up slowly "in stages". In free running sleep, you should be able to quickly arrive to the point when you fall asleep in less than 10 minutes and wake up immediately (i.e. without a period of sleep inertia). In other words, you can remember the hour you go to bed, add 5-10 minutes and record it as the hour you fell asleep. As soon as you open your eyes in the morning, you should record the waking hour. Usually you should not have any doubts if you have already awakened for good (as opposed to temporarily), and you will usually not fall asleep again (as it may be a frequent case in non-free running sleep). The graph below shows an exemplary free running sleep log in a graphic form:

An exemplary 5-month free running sleep cycle graph in conditions of negligible isolation from standard zeitgebers. In the picture, the average time of night sleep is 7 h 5 min, time before the midday nap is 7 h 48 min, the average nap takes 25 minutes and the time before the nap and the night sleep is 9 h 46 min. The whole cycle adds up to 25 hours and 4 minutes. Note that the distance between the nap and the night sleep in the graph is less than 9 h 46 minutes due to the fact that the blue retirement-line refers to the previous day sleep as compared with the red nap-line. Consequently, the nap-to-sleep band is horizontally shortened by 64 minutes, i.e. exactly as much as the daily time-shift in the cycle.

An exemplary 5-month free running sleep cycle graph. In the picture, the average time of night sleep is 7 h 5 min, time before the midday nap is 7 h 48 min, the average nap takes 25 minutes and the time before the nap and the night sleep is 9 h 46 min. The whole cycle adds up to 25 hours and 4 minutes. Note that the distance between the nap and the night sleep in the graph is less than 9 h 46 minutes due to the fact that the blue retirement-line refers to the previous day sleep as compared with the red nap-line. Consequently, the nap-to-sleep band is horizontally shortened by 64 minutes, i.e. exactly as much as the daily phase shift in the cycle.

If you have collected your own free-running sleep data with SleepChart, I would be very grateful for your submissions that will be useful in further research (sending data from SleepChart takes just a single click).