For a small group of people, seven or eight hours of sleep per night is an unnecessary luxury. They are the short sleepers — night owls and early birds at the same time.
You probably know one or two of them: they pretty much always go to sleep somewhere after 12 and wake up earlier than 7 without even needing an alarm clock and feeling completely refreshed. They don’t rely on coffee or afternoon naps, and tend to be full of energy, ambitious and optimistic. They are the sleepless elite, and many myths revolve around them. But here’s what the science says.
Sleep? Not much
Nobody knows exactly how many short sleepers there are, but most definitely not as many as one might be tempted to 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-termsleep deprivation, a chronic problem that can lead to a number of conditions. It’s estimated that about one-third of US adults get less than the 7-8 hours of sleep they need.
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 is currently no medically accepted way for one to teach oneself to become a short sleeper, despite numerous reports and more or less documented cases. There could be, but based on the existing science, there’s only speculation and not much definitive science.
But by studying short sleepers, 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.
However, it’s essential to avoid forcing this — sleep deprivation can lead to a multitude of physical and mental conditions, and you really don’t want to do this to yourself. It’s important to adhere to healthy lifestyle habits and give your body as much sleep as it requires.