APRIL 5, 2011
The Sleepless Elite.
Why Some People Can Run on Little Sleep and Get So Much Done.
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, and then get up just a few hours later and go 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.
Melinda Beck explains why for a small number of people getting a full night of sleep is a waste of time and the reasons behind it.
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.
Nobody knows how many natural short sleepers are out there. 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.
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.
Most adults have normal sleep needs, functioning best with 7 to 9 hours of sleep, and about two-thirds of Americans regularly get it. Children fare better with 8 to 12 hours, and elderly people may need only 6 to 7.
One-third of Americans are sleep-deprived, regularly getting less than 7 hours a night, which puts them at higher risk of diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and other health problems.
Short sleepers, about 1% to 3% of the population, function well on less than 6 hours of sleep without being tired during the day. They tend to be unusually energetic and outgoing. Geneticists who spotted a gene variation in short sleepers were able to replicate it in mice—which needed less sleep than usual, too.
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.
Some short sleepers say their sleep patterns go back to childhood and some see the same patterns starting in their own kids, such as giving up naps by age 2. As adults, they gravitate to different fields, but whatever they do, they do full bore, Dr. Jones says.
"Typically, at the end of a long, structured phone interview, they will admit that they've been texting and surfing the Internet and doing the crossword puzzle at the same time, all on less than six hours of sleep," says Dr. Jones. "There is some sort of psychological and physiological energy to them that we don't understand."
Drs. Jones and Fu stress that there is no genetic test for short sleeping. Ultimately, they expect to find that many different genes play a role, which may in turn reveal more about the complex systems that regulate sleep in humans.
Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Leonardo da Vinci were too busy to sleep much, according to historical accounts. Winston Churchill and Thomas Edison came close but they were also fond of taking naps, which may disqualify them as true short sleepers.
Nowadays, some short sleepers gravitate to fields like blogging, videogame design and social media. "If I could find a way to do it, I'd never sleep," says Dave Hatter, a software developer in Fort Wright, Ky. He typically sleeps just four to five hours a night, up from two to three hours a few years ago.
"It's crazy, but it works for me," says Eleanor Hoffman, an overnight administrator at Bellevue Hospital Center in New York who would rather spend the night playing mahjong with friends than sleep. Sometimes she calls her cousin, Linda Cohen, in Pittsburgh about 4 a.m., since she knows she'll be wide awake as well—just like when they were as kids.