Have you ever heard someone boast about being able to function normally on very little rest, or hear the phrase “super sleeper”?
Before you get jealous of all the extra time these alleged Super Sleepers grab in a day, know that the ability to function on little sleep proves very rare. In fact, these Super Sleepers often seem Super-Sleep-Deprived according to research.
The Science of the Super Sleeper
Dr. Ying-Hui Fu, a geneticist at University of California-San Francisco, found a gene mutation on the DEC2 transcription facilitator that appeared only in true Super Sleepers. People who possess this gene variation have circadian rhythms that differ from the general population, and differences in sleep patterns are evident at a very young age. As early as age two, Super Sleepers tend to give up on naps.
Super Sleepers seem to have upbeat moods, a higher tolerance for physical pain, bounce back better from psychological setbacks, and have better metabolism. This genetic variation has been replicated in mice. However, to date, Dr. Fu and her team have only identified 20 true Super Sleepers. These folks are hard to find and study because they rarely go to sleep clinics or feel that they have a disorder.
It seems like there are many more than 20 people out there that claim that they can function normally on less than 5 or 6 hours of sleep – so what is the deal with them? Well, out of every 100 people who believe they need 5 or 6 hours of sleep a night, only about 5 people really do.
Short Sleepers can be night owls or early birds, and they appear energetic, outgoing, and ambitious, traits which start in early childhood and appear to run in families. They have a certain psychological and physiological energy to them, and head into their chosen careers at full bore.
And the other 95? Turns out they may be chronically sleep-deprived.
How much rest do Short Sleepers need?
A University of Utah study of 839 people looked at patterns of neural connections in the brains of habitual “Short Sleepers”. This study only looked at brain scans, so we don’t know it any participants possessed the Super Sleepers gene.
First, researchers divided the participants into two groups. One for those who needed 7-12 hours per night, and one of those who needed six or less. The group needing less than 6 hours of sleep per night further split into those who admitted feeling drowsy, and those who claimed they felt fine.
What about side effects?
Through brain scans and the examination of neural connections, they found that some people were in fact Short Sleepers. This subset functioned normally during the day and consolidated memories more efficiently at night. More research is needed; however, effective short-sleeping may relate to hypomania – a mild form of mania associated with racing thoughts and lower inhibitions. You can’t train yourself to be a Short Sleeper.
But most people who claimed the title of Short Sleeper actually exhibited more fatigue than they realized.
Turns out that the brain scans of many of the self-proclaimed short sleepers showed brain patterns of what you normally see when a person sleeps. They appeared to drift off to sleep during the brain scans, although they denied doing so. Turns out that people are notoriously bad for knowing if they have fallen asleep for a short period of time.
These not-so-Super-Sleepers may also fall asleep from boredom while in the scanner. In everyday life, they tend to seek constant stimulation to override their need to sleep. This becomes a danger when participating in mundane, everyday tasks such as driving.
Sleep deprivation impairs judgement and reasoning, so perceptions of being alert and high-functioning may very well be inaccurate. Prior research also identifies a discrepancy between perception of functioning and actual performance. Most sleep deprived people show cognitive impairment similar to being intoxicated. But, they may not realize how poorly they are performing, posing a threat to themselves and others. The bottom line — most people lack the ability to notice their own performance deficits when tired.
Sleep-Deprived or Super Sleeper
Aside from medical testing, a few tips help differentiate a sleep deprived person from a Super Sleeper. Whether yourself or family member, look for common signs of someone low in sleep:
- Do you notice increased moodiness, poor judgement and poor performance at work, school or while driving?
- Do they tend to sleep longer on weekends or vacations? How much do they sleep without an alarm or set schedule?
- Are they in constant need of stimulation and busyness? What happens if that stimulation stops?
Chronic sleep deprivation is hard on the body, associated to many mental and physical ailments. Drowsy driving is the cause of between 10% and 30% of all traffic accidents, and a myriad of workplace accidents.
To maintain an overly busy lifestyle, the Sleep-Deprived may masquerade as Super Sleepers, putting themselves at risk for health problems, and everyone at risk with impaired judgement and performance.