Most people who don’t get enough sleep are usually irritable, grumpy, or even angry throughout the day. And in fact, without enough sleep, mental and physical ability change getting worse and worse with the longer an individual has been awake. After 17 hours of no sleep, cognitive ability drops to a point that is similar to having a blood alcohol level of .05 (characterized by impaired judgment and coordination). After 24 hours of no sleep, it’s practically like being legally drunk. Over time a chronic lack of shut-eye makes you more prone to accidents, depression, and anxiety.
However, more and more experts are recognizing what’s called “short sleepers”, people who don’t need more than four or five hours per night. Most people need between 7 and 9 hours to feel rested and rejuvenated throughout the day. True “short sleepers” are rare, according to sleep specialist Carol Ash, DO, a member of the Ladies Home Journal Medical Advisory Board. “Only a tiny percentage of people can function well with that little [sleep],” she says.
For some people finding out about short sleepers can take their lives, as in the case of one woman. She had spent thirty years trying to figure out how to sleep better. She would wake up at 3am or 4 or 5 and simply couldn’t fall back asleep while her husband lay next to her in complete REM sleep. Then, she simply started getting out of bed. She checked things of her to do list. She got organized and started projects she has wanted to do but hadn’t had time. She describes her habit of getting out of bed instead of forcing herself to sleep in this way:
That, at least, is how it’s worked for me. I now view those nightly hours of sleeplessness as an opportunity, not torture. Don’t get me wrong: The anxieties that kept me awake for years haven’t magically vanished. But, once I get out of bed and keep myself occupied, I relax and become genuinely tired. So when I go back to bed, I’m able to fall asleep. There are even nights now when I log a full eight hours. Or more.
Ying-Hui Fu, a professor at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, studies the genetics and other characteristics of short sleepers. In a 2009 paper published in the journal Science, Fu described a mother and a daughter who shared the same genetic mutation of the gene DEC2. It is this genetic mutation that allows them to thrive on six hours of sleep per night, and since then Fu has identified about 50 families of short sleepers. “This group of short sleepers is unique,” Fu said, describing them as optimistic and energetic, often holding more than one job.
In another study, aimed to explore the personality traits of 12 short sleepers, found that some can reach extremes. For instance, the study, which was published in the Journal of Sleep Research found evidence of subclinical hypomania, a milder form of manic behavior, characterized by euphoria, dis-inhibition, and a decreased need for sleep.
On the other hand, Dr. Charles Bae, a sleep specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, believes that most people who say that don’t need a lot of sleep are simply fooling themselves and it turns out after testing they in fact don’t have the genetic mutation.
It’s important for someone who is getting little sleep to experiment with what works best. There’s no question that getting out of bed when not sleeping is a good idea regardless. If you’re a short sleeper then you’ll have more hours to get things done. And if you’re not a short sleeper, then perhaps other signs will point the way to what’s causing little sleep.