For many Americans, sleeplessness is a matter of pride. Many is the hard-charging corporate climber who claims to thrive on four or five hours a night, while the rest of us weaklings wallow in our beauty sleep.
But according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, most people who believe they’re naturally “short sleepers” aren’t really. They’re merely sleep-deprived — regularly getting less than the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night — and possibly putting themselves at higher risk of diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and other health problems. (More on Time.com: 5 Ways Daylight Savings May Be Bad For Your Health)
That said, the elusive corps of sleepless elite does indeed exist, the Journal‘s Melinda Beck reports: they make up a scant 1% to 3% of the population. There isn’t much data on these short sleepers, in part because they’re hard to find; they don’t typically seek treatment, since they don’t think of their sleep habits as unusual or disordered.
What the few researchers studying the phenomenon have figured out to date is that naturally short sleepers routinely get six hours or less a night and function well, without being tired. They tend to be upbeat, optimistic and outgoing. They are high-energy multitaskers. Sometimes short sleeping begins in childhood and runs in families: Beck reports on the work of Dr. Ying-Hui Fu at the University of California, San Francisco, who discovered a gene variation, hDEC2, in a mother-daughter pair of short sleepers in 2009. When that genetic tweak was replicated in mice, they slept less too. (More on Time.com: Sleepy America: Are You Getting Enough Rest at Night?)
Now Fu and his colleagues are recruiting more potential short sleepers for a larger genetic study. Beck reports:
Potential candidates for the gene study are sent multiple questionnaires and undergo a long structured phone interview. Those who make the initial screening wear monitors to track their sleep patterns at home. Christopher Jones, a University of Utah neurologist and sleep scientist who oversees the recruiting, says there is one question that is more revealing than anything else: When people do have a chance to sleep longer, on weekends or vacation, do they still sleep only five or six hours a night? People who sleep more when they can are not true short sleepers, he says.
To date, Dr. Jones says he has identified only about 20 true short sleepers, and he says they share some fascinating characteristics. Not only are their circadian rhythms different from most people, so are their moods (very upbeat) and their metabolism (they’re thinner than average, even though sleep deprivation usually raises the risk of obesity). They also seem to have a high tolerance for physical pain and psychological setbacks.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to teach yourself to be a short sleeper — though you can’t say people aren’t trying. At least one-third of Americans are dragging around with less sleep than we need. Work, family and other commitments rouse people early, while computers, TV and other electronic media keep people awake late at night. (Other contributors to chronic sleep loss may include sleep apnea, depression, anxiety, stress and hyperactivity, among others.)
Many suffer through their exhaustion proudly, leading to a cultural phenomenon called “sleep machismo,” as a recent column in USA Today pointed out: the valuing of sleeplessness over sleep. (Think clichés like “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”) But as the column also points out, if you’re not getting the seven to nine hours you need, you’re not doing your health or your productivity any favors. (More on Time.com: Lack of Sleep Linked With Depression, Weight Gain and Even Death)
If you truly believe that you are one of the sleepless elite and want to be part of the genetic study, Beck suggests getting in touch Dr. Chris Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.