Short sleepers, or elite sleepers, or early sleepers are a small group of people who don’t need seven or eight hours of sleep per night. They are night owls and early birds at the same time.
You’ve probably met a short sleeper or two in your life. They usually go to sleep somewhere after 12 and wake up before 7 without even needing an alarm clock and feeling completely refreshed; rarely rely on coffee or afternoon naps; and are usuallyfull of energy, ambitious and optimistic. They are the sleepless elite, and many myths revolve around them. But here’s what the science says.
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Sleep? Not much
Sleep is an essential biological function that has significant effects on the brain and the body. Numerous scientific studies show that sleep plays a key role in our overall health and a lack of sleep can lead to serious health issues. If your body doesn’t get enough sleep, it can’t restore and rejuvenate your physical resources. A lack of sleep leads to cognitive deficits and an increased risk of chronic conditions.
But some people are just different. There’s no official name for them, but ‘short sleeper’ is often used.
Nobody knows exactly how many short sleepers there are, but most definitely not as many as one may think.
“There aren’t nearly as many 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.
For every 100 people who believe they only need about 5 hours of sleep, only five of them actually operate like that. For the other 95, we’re probably talking about long-term sleep deprivation, a chronic problem that can lead to a decrease in cognitive functions, mental health, and physical health.
Experts estimate that about one-third of all US adults get less than 7-8 hours of sleep they need, and similar trends have been reported in other parts of the world. Many people think they’re getting enough sleep, but they’re not. So if you think you’re a short sleeper — analyze things carefully and don’t jump to conclusions. You may be undersleeping and hurting your body.
The sleepless elite
Still, some people are a part of this sleepless elite and it’s not clear why this happens. Short sleepers don’t force themselves or purposefully restrict sleep; it just sort of happens naturally to them.
The exact reason why some people are short sleepers is not fully understood. It may be due to genetic factors or lifestyle habits, or something else that has eluded detection so far. Some research has suggested that short sleepers have a genetic predisposition to needing less sleep, while others have found that certain personality traits, such as high levels of extroversion and low levels of neuroticism, are associated with short sleep patterns — but interpreting these results has proven very difficult.
Some studies suggested a really interesting thing about short sleepers, that they suffer from a slight form of mania – hypomania.
“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.
Can you become a short sleeper?
There are many programs that claim to ‘teach’ you how to sleep less. That doesn’t work — it’s just sleep deprivation with extra steps. However, you can optimize your sleep. You can get the most out of your sleeping time and improve rejuvenation. But getting the solid hours in is absolutely crucial.
So according to current science, there’s no way to become a short sleeper. You either are one or you’re not. There could be methods that get you there, but we just don’t know them yet.
Studies on short sleepers are very useful, however. Researchers believe they can somehow understand why the necessary amount of sleep time varies so much from individual to individual — and help people make the most of their sleep.
“My long-term goal is to someday learn enough so we can manipulate the sleep pathways without damaging our health,” says human geneticist Ying-Hui Fu at the University of California-San Francisco. “Everybody can use more waking hours, even if you just watch movies.”
It is currently believed that a short sleeper pattern emerges during childhood, and the pattern continues throughout the years, which can be a serious but unnecessary source of concern for family members and friends; short sleeping should not be confused with insomnia, in which basically a person has trouble going to sleep or staying asleep.
Short sleeping also tends to run in the family, so there is some genetic research being conducted on the issue too. Hopefully, in the future, we will be able to determine with a decent approximation just how much every person needs, which will go a long way to a healthy and productive life.
How much do I need to sleep?
So if you can’t become a short sleeper, your best option is probably getting in the right amount of sleep hours and optimizing your schedule and lifestyle. But what is the right amount of sleep hours?
This greatly depends on a number of factors but in general, here’s how much you need to sleep based on age:
|Recommended amount of sleep
|Infants 4 months to 12 months
|12 to 16 hours per 24 hours, including naps
|1 to 2 years
|11 to 14 hours per 24 hours, including naps
|3 to 5 years
|10 to 13 hours per 24 hours, including naps
|6 to 12 years
|9 to 12 hours per 24 hours
|13 to 18 years
|8 to 10 hours per 24 hours
|7 or more hours a night
Again, these are all just general guidelines and individual sleep needs can vary greatly. Your physical activity levels, illness, pregnancy, even the climate can all influence the amount of sleep a person needs. Also, it’s not just quantity: quality of sleep is equally critical. You need to make sure that your sleep is peaceful and relaxed. The real sleepless elite is all about sleeping well.
Respect your body
For now, short sleepers are a fascinating paradox in the realm of sleep science. While the average person requires seven to eight hours of sleep to function optimally, these sleepless elites thrive on significantly less. Their mysterious genetic or lifestyle factors that allow them to function on less sleep remain an intriguing area of study, but the bottom line is clear: trying to emulate their sleep patterns is almost definitely a bad idea. If you’re not naturally predisposed to needing less sleep, it’s risky to push it.
It’s essential to listen to your body and give it the rest it requires for rejuvenation and optimal functioning. As more research is carried out, we can hopefully glean further insights from the sleepless elite to help everyone better understand and optimize their sleep. In the meantime, until science finds a way to safely reduce the amount of sleep required, it is best to prioritize getting a healthy amount of sleep.
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