About Short Sleeper Syndrome

September 22, 2019

What do Donald Trump, Elon Musk, and Martha Stewart have in common? They’re part of the 1 percent.

No, not that one percent. Instead, we’re referring to the one percent of people who thrive on far less sleep than what is recommended by doctors and researchers. Scientists label it short sleeper syndrome.

Trump, Musk and Stewart all reportedly get by on less than six hours a night, making them part of the so-called “sleepless elite.” Most people need around seven to nine hours of sleep a night for overall health and well-being. But it seems that these guidelines don’t apply to a small segment of the population officially called natural short sleepers.

Short sleepers wake up feeling refreshed and wide awake, despite clocking six or less hours of sleep per night. Some short sleepers say a mere few hours of shut-eye a night is all they need to feel great.

It’s sort of like being both a night owl and early riser at the same time. And, unsurprisingly, this group has caught the interest of researchers due to their sleep efficiency.

Although sleep needs do vary from person to person, natural short sleepers are rare unicorns in sleep research. Understanding their superhuman sleep needs could unlock some of the standing mysteries of sleep, says Ying-Hui Fu, a researcher who studies the genetics and other attributes of short sleepers at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine.

Are You a Short Sleeper?

First, let’s get some bad news out of the way. If you think you’re a short sleeper, you’re probably just sleep deprived, like the roughly one-third of Americans who get less than seven hours of sleep a night.

Around 12 percent of Americans say they feel fine on less than six hours of sleep. But researchers don’t think most of these people are natural short sleepers. In fact, studies have found some evidence to suggest that people who are in denial about being sleep deprived are more adversely impacted than they think.

Genuine short sleepers are extremely rare, Fu said in an email to Discover. Their pattern of abbreviated sleep is innate, and they function just as well as someone who’s gotten seven to nine hours of rest, if not better.

“Natural short sleepers sleep very well and wake up refreshed, wide awake. They are energetic all day long, doing all kinds of activities and enjoying their lives,” Fu said.

An important distinction among short sleepers is that they routinely get very little sleep, night after night, and it never seems to catch up with them. They sleep so little because they need less rest to recharge.

If most people routinely got less than six hours of sleep, they’d form a sleep debt and might start to notice consequences for their mood, brain functioning and overall health. But for the short sleeper, none of this happens.

Quality Over Quantity

Genuine short sleepers don’t depend on caffeine or naps to keep them going, Fu said. Nor do they spend their weekends or vacations catching up on Z’s.

Not getting enough sleep has been linked to a number of health conditions, and it can increase the risk of death. But this doesn’t seem to apply to natural short sleepers. Where their sleep lacks in quantity, it’s not lacking in quality. 

“Their sleep is more ‘efficient’ in getting sleep’s job done, whatever that is,” Fu said.

During sleep, the brain repeatedly moves through four stages of REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep in a specific sequence, with the longest period REM period occurring before awakening for the day. Important, restorative processes happen in both REM and non-REM sleep.

A 2001 study into the sleep patterns and personalities of short sleepers found that they get plenty of slow wave sleep, often referred to as deep sleep or restorative sleep. And it cited work that found short sleepers get less of the REM stage of sleep, the stage when dreams are most easily remembered. 

But interestingly, Fu’s lab hasn’t found any difference in how how short sleepers cycle through the sleep stages, except for the fact that they sleep less overall. 

“From mice that carry the same mutation, we can see that mutant mice have fewer REM and NREM bouts. But, its difficult to know how to compare this with human sleep. We are working on human sleep right now, but it will take some time before we know the answer,” she says.

But perhaps most importantly, both sleepers and researchers haven’t found any reason to be concerned.

“The natural short sleepers we study do not have any obvious problems with their brains or health,” Fu said.

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