Last night, I got four hours of sleep. I had wanted to get to sleep earlier than I did, but I was working on a project that I didn’t have a chance to do while the kids were awake. When I woke up, I felt like a zombie. I made myself a reasonably sized vat of coffee and thought, as I often do while in a sleep-deprived daze, about my friend—let’s call her “L”—who lives and functions on five hours of sleep a day. Always has.
And I am completely and totally jealous.
I’m not a jealous person by nature. I don’t look at what a friend has and wish I had that particular thing, too. I’m usually content. But, what I wouldn’t give to be able to function on less than an average amount of sleep and to gain a few extra hours in my day. When it comes to my friend’s sleep needs—or lack of sleep needs, as the case may be—I’m completely jealous.
As it turns out, “L” is not alone in her minimal sleep needs. She is among the one percent of people scientists are calling “short sleepers” who function best on fewer than the one-size-fits-all eight hours of sleep.
What Is A Short Sleeper?
First: what isn’t a short sleeper? A natural short sleeper is not someone who gets less than seven hours of sleep a night because of insomnia or stress. A short sleeper is not someone who wakes up after five hours of sleep and reaches for caffeine to get through the day.
A short sleeper is instead one who gets less than six hours of sleep a night and wakes up feeling refreshed. After a few nights or weeks in a row, a natural short sleeper doesn’t begin to form a sleep debt, and won’t eventually need to catch up on sleep on weekends or vacations.
Natural short sleepers don’t suffer the consequences of sleep deprivation—because they aren’t sleep deprived. Their mood, brain function, and overall health aren’t impacted by getting less than the average eight hours of sleep. Nor is their natural need for less sleep a condition that needs to be remedied via sleep aids, supplements, or otherwise.
Can I Train Myself To Be A Short Sleeper?
Sadly, the short answer is: no.
Scientists believe that the tendency toward needing less than six hours of sleep a night to function is linked to genetics.
Dr. Louis Ptacek, a neurology professor at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and his wife, Ying-Hui Fu, also a professor of neurology at UCSF, have so far discovered four genes that control sleep and provide evidence to prove that functioning well on less sleep is something determined by our DNA, like height and eye color. In an interview with Time Magazine, Ptacek says, “There are many people who think everyone needs eight to eight and a half hours of sleep per night and there will be health consequences if they don’t get it. But that’s as crazy as saying everybody has to be 5 ft. 10 in. tall. It’s just not true.”
Likewise, Fu told Time Magazine that she doesn’t believe that “lifestyle or experience could make people a natural short sleeper.”
What Can We Learn From Short Sleepers?
Researchers are hoping that soon we can all benefit from the knowledge derived from studying short sleepers and understanding why their sleep is so efficient.
“As we identify more and more genes and we think about the pathways in which they function, at some point, a picture is going to emerge, and we will begin to have an understanding of how sleep is regulated in greater detail,” Ptacek told Time Magazine. Eventually, that understanding may lead to personalized treatments to improve sleep efficiency in everyone.
Even more, understanding the genetics behind efficient sleepers might also help scientists unlock answers regarding the body’s other circadian rhythms, the body’s 24-hour internal clock. Scientists already know that certain medications and tests are better taken or completed at different times of day to get a more accurate response or result. But Steven Lockley, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who studies circadian rhythms and sleep, told Time Magazine that this knowledge may just be the tip of the iceberg. As our knowledge grows, in five to ten years, there’s a possibility that “all your test results and treatments could be based on your real internal time, which is going to be very different between you and me based on our internal clocks.”
In the meantime, it’s important to remember there’s no one size fits all approach to sleep. In her interview with Discover Magazine, Fu reminded us that, “We do not have to sleep eight hours a day. Everyone should figure out their own best sleep pattern and follow that pattern. This could be longer than eight hours (for some people), by the way.”
The important thing is to tune in to your body and give it the amount of sleep that feels right. With all the things demanding our attention during all the days, that’s hard to do. But it’s worth it.
And until scientists can unlock the secrets in the DNA of short sleepers and help all of us sleep better, or at least more efficiently so that we can utilize those few extra hours, there will always be coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.