How much sleep do you need every night? Chances are, you need at least 6-8 hours of sleep like 98% of the population does. But did you know, there is a group they officially call ‘short sleepers’ who can function perfectly fine with only 4 hours or even less?
Before you go labeling yourself as one, you should know that only about 5% of the people who claim to be short sleepers, actually are. The rest will eventually start to show signs of chronic sleep deprivation – but not the sleepless elite! That’s because there’s a lot more to the sleepless elite than just their ability to survive without much of it.
They have some rather unique qualities. They are both early birds and night owls simultaneously. They can go to sleep at 2am and be back up with the sun with no problem, and they won’t even need caffeine. In fact, too much caffeine may make them feel jittery since they already have so much energy.
They are usually thin due to their fast metabolism. They may even be accused of being on drugs or having ADHD, simply because most people just can’t understand how someone can have so much energy. They are also outgoing, optimistic and ambitious.
Another key fact is that they do not sleep extra hours, ever. Even when on weekends and vacations. According to the few researchers who have studied them, the pattern sometimes starts in childhood and often runs in families. What complicates things further is that nobody knows how many natural short sleepers are out there.
“There aren’t nearly as many [short sleepers] as there are people who think they’re short sleepers,” says Daniel J. Buysse, a psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a past president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, a professional group. The reason is simply because they are so difficult to find and test. They rarely go to sleep clinics because they don’t think they have a disorder. (And is it even a true ‘disorder’?)
“These people talk fast. They never stop. They’re always on the up side of life,” says Dr. Buysse. He was one of the authors of a 2001 study that had 12 confirmed short sleepers and 12 control subjects keep diaries and complete numerous questionnaires about their work, sleep and living habits. One survey dubbed “Attitude for Life” that was actually a test for hypomania. The natural short sleepers scored twice as high as the controls.
What is the cause? The science is still out, but there are some good theories going around.” Everybody can use more waking hours, even if you just watch movies.” says human geneticist Ying-Hui Fu at the University of California-San Francisco. Dr. Fu’s research team made a surprising discovery in 2009. They were studying a group of extreme early risers when they noticed that two of their research subjects, a mother and daughter, got up naturally about 4 a.m. but then went to bed past midnight without napping during the day.
Genetic analyses spotted one gene variation common to them both, the hDEC2 gene. Scientists were able to replicate the gene variation in a strain of mice and found that the mice then needed less sleep than usual, too. However, there is still no way to test the genetics of someone to see if they are a short sleeper.
So, do you still think you might be a sleepless superhuman? If so you can contact Dr Christopher Jones, a University of Utah neurologist and sleep scientist who oversees recruiting for sleep studies on short sleepers. However, to this day, Dr. Jones says he has only been able to identify about 20 true short sleepers.
According to Dr Jones, not only are the circadian rhythms of short sleepers different from most people, their moods are very upbeat and their metabolism is certainly faster, making them thinner than average – despite the fact that sleep deprivation usually raises the risk of obesity. They also seem to have a high tolerance for physical pain and psychological setbacks. “They encounter obstacles, they just pick themselves up and try again,” Dr. Jones says.
According to their findings: “Some short sleepers say their sleep patterns go back to childhood and some see the same patterns starting in their own kids, such as giving up naps by age 2. As adults, they gravitate to different fields, but whatever they do, they do full bore.” Nowadays, some short sleepers gravitate to fields like blogging, videogame design and social media, where their sleep habits come in handy.
“Typically, at the end of a long, structured phone interview, they will admit that they’ve been texting and surfing the Internet and doing the crossword puzzle at the same time, all on less than six hours of sleep,” says Dr. Jones. “There is some sort of psychological and physiological energy to them that we don’t understand.”
If you are interested in being tested, feel free to contact Dr Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by Journalist, Activist and Researcher, Lara Starr