Do some people only need a few hours of sleep a night?

Melinda Beck at the WSJ explains:

For a small group of people—perhaps just 1% to 3% of the population—sleep is a waste of time.

Natural “short sleepers,” as they’re officially known, are night owls and early birds simultaneously. They typically turn in well after midnight, then get up just a few hours later and barrel through the day without needing to take naps or load up on caffeine.

They are also energetic, outgoing, optimistic and ambitious, according to the few researchers who have studied them. The pattern sometimes starts in childhood and often runs in families.

While it’s unclear if all short sleepers are high achievers, they do have more time in the day to do things, and keep finding more interesting things to do than sleep, often doing several things at once.

You’re probably not one of them.

Out of every 100 people who believe they only need five or six hours of sleep a night, only about five people really do, Dr. Buysse says. The rest end up chronically sleep deprived, part of the one-third of U.S. adults who get less than the recommended seven hours of sleep per night, according to a report last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In fact, it may be tied to a type of mania:

A few studies have suggested that some short sleepers may have hypomania, a mild form of mania with racing thoughts and few inhibitions. “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.

No, you can’t become one of them:

There is currently no way people can teach themselves to be short sleepers. Still, scientists hope that by studying short sleepers, they can better understand how the body regulates sleep and why sleep needs vary so much in humans… 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.

What are these people like?

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.

“They encounter obstacles, they just pick themselves up and try again,” Dr. Jones says.

I’ve posted before about the importance of sleep:

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