Are you part of the world’s 1-percent… of short sleepers?
For most of us, four to six hours of sleep sounds like a rough night. But for some special sleepers, it’s plenty of shuteye. In fact, about one percent of the population only needs six hours or fewer a night to feel genuinely refreshed and ready for the next day. They even have a name: short sleepers.
Sounds unfair, right? Like perfect teeth or a show-stopping singing voice, being a short sleeper just might be a genetic advantage enjoyed by a lucky few. Among them are Margaret Thatcher, Barack Obama and Martha Stewart. Thomas Edison reported sleep was a waste of time, and he regularly slept only a few hours each night. He may also have been a short sleeper.
Or he might have felt cranky all the time. Being a short sleeper isn’t determined only by how little you sleep. Plenty of people sleep just four to six hours a night—and are chronically sleep deprived because of it. As research is beginning to show, true short sleepers come by the habit naturally, and don’t feel any negative effects from their abbreviated slumber.
Short sleepers by nature
In a landmark study out of the University of California, San Francisco, researchers discovered a gene mutation that might account for short sleepers. A gene known to affect the circadian rhythm, DEC2, was discovered in a mother and daughter who regularly slept about four hours a night.
Short sleepers seem to enter the restorative phase of deep sleep sooner, which is how they get the same benefit from six hours of rest as others get from eight hours or more. Many short sleepers share other characteristics as well: They’re generally optimistic and appear to have a high pain threshold. One study participant didn’t need Novocain for dental work. Another said she had little pain during childbirth, even without a painkiller.
These traits may be related to the gene mutation, and are most likely not something we can replicate—at least outside of a lab. “If we can identify the pathways that can regulate our sleep duration, then maybe someday we can come up with something better than caffeine for those who aren’t short sleepers,” said Dr. Ying-Hui Fu at the University of California, San Francisco, lead author of the study.
Learning from short sleepers
While only one in 100 people are true short sleepers, a full 40% of Americans get six hours a night or less, according to Gallup. That means 39 in 100 people may behave like a short sleeper, but rely on coffee, naps and (likely) denial to get through the day.
If you think you’re really a short sleeper, here’s a test: When you’re on vacation for several days, go to sleep whenever you start feeling sleepy and allow yourself to wake up naturally. After a week or so, your sleep pattern will reveal how much sleep you really need a night.
Not a short sleeper after all? Join the club. But it’s nothing to feel badly about. While you can’t will yourself into having a DEC2 gene, there are still things we regular folk can learn from short sleepers that can benefit our sleep lives:
- Be a go-getter. Short sleepers tend to be physically active and high-energy. They volunteer and stay super busy all day. While they come by these habits naturally, it’s known that doing things to expend more energy, like exercising, can improve sleep issues.
- Embrace your sleep pattern. Most people stress out when they’re awake at 4 a.m., but not short sleepers. They embrace the sleep pattern they were born with. If you happen to rise early, make the best of it by doing something productive in the wee hours—read, exercise, get work done or clean the house.
- Ignore society’s views on sleep. There’s a societal notion that sleeping fewer hours is prized, and to be successful you should sleep less. Hogwash. Short sleepers have shown us that our sleep patterns are genetically predetermined.
- Practice optimism. Short sleepers tend to be optimistic. While there’s no reason to believe optimism causes less need for sleep, what’s the downside?
While getting the short sleeping gene may seem like a boon, science considers it a sleep disorder. And it’s important to not pretend to be a short sleeper. Fu says you cannot become a short sleeper. It’s something you are or you aren’t. Fu stresses you should aim to get the amount of sleep you know you need.
“One day, though, we may have enough knowledge to intelligently tweak the system and help people sleep more efficiently,” says Fu. Maybe there will be a short sleeper pill in our future. Until then, go ahead and get some sleep—unless you really don’t need it.
Written by Jennifer Nelson
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