Sleep, Health, and the "Short Sleep Gene"

 sleeping man

How many times have you heard this?

“You can sleep when you’re dead.”

“It’s normal to not get enough sleep at this age / at this stage in life.”

“Parents don’t sleep! That’s how it works!”

It’s pervasive in our culture: One of the biggest myths out there regarding sleep is that most people can function “just fine” on a little bit of sleep. 

The Facts:

Most people need at least 7 hours sleep per night to not experience any negative health effects from lack of sleep. Parent or not!

There are numerous studies out there corroborating this. Take, for example, this notable study, performed in the UK in 2007. The results are conclusive: people who reduced their sleep from seven to five hours or fewer per night, on average, were more than twice as likely to die from all causes, especially cardiovascular disease.

People who reduced their sleep from seven to five hours or fewer per night, on average, were more than twice as likely to die from all causes, especially cardiovascular disease.

 

There are also many studies showing links between poor sleep and weight gain, a weakened immune system, high blood pressure, depression, a higher risk of stroke, diabetes, and some cancers.

There’s even some recent information that’s come out linking dementia in old age to less sleep in middle age.

And that’s not several little catnaps spread throughout the day. It’s actually another myth that napping is good for an adult. If you fall asleep in the middle of the day (at your desk, or on the couch), it usually means you’re not getting the sleep you need at night.

And it’s not only the amount you sleep that matters, but the amount you continuously sleep that does.

Slow Wave Sleep and Your Health

Having at least one 4-hour stretch of sleep during a 24-hour period is vital to one’s overall health. That’s because that’s how long it takes your body to get into “Slow Wave Sleep,” believed to be the most restorative type of sleep. People who do not get this bare minimum are at an increased risk of depression, anxiety, as well as a host of other health issues. They are also operating at a cognitive deficit equivalent to having a .08 blood alcohol level.

Having at least one 4-hour stretch of sleep during a 24-hour period is vital to one’s overall health.

That’s why even when you have a newborn, you should strive to get at least one four-hour stretch of sleep every day. (To accomplish this as a breastfeeding mother, have a partner, family member, or hired help give baby expressed milk for at least one feeding during those cluster-feeding early days.)

You would never dream of taking care of your baby after having a couple of drinks. So you don’t want to be just as impaired from that lack of sleep. A severely sleep-deprived parent may accidentally engage in risky behavior such as falling asleep with their baby on the couch or in a chair, co-sleeping unsafely, or driving a car on too little sleep, with their baby in it.

That’s one of the reasons we’re such big advocates of getting your babies and children on a sleep schedule. For everyone’s optimum health, as well as safety, your baby’s and your own, you need that a good stretch of sleep.

We know how rough it is that first couple of months—we’re parents, too! But the good news is, the newborn phase is temporary. Once that phase (commonly known as the fourth trimester) is over, most babies are ready to learn how to sleep longer stretches. And it’s up to you to help them learn this important skill.

Babies are ready to learn how to sleep longer when they’re at least 11 pounds, and have shown at least once that they can sleep for a 5-hour stretch. Most babies reach this milestone around 3 months of age. That’s when you can start implementing our gentle sleep training method.

(And if you’re afraid to sleep train because you think it’s “selfish,” we’ve got a whole host of evidence to show why this is not true! To sum up, controlled crying methods have been tested and the science is clear: babies who receive these techniques sleep better, their parents have fewer symptoms of depression, and these methods do not affect the child's stress levels. Read more here.)

Once your baby has learned how to sleep for longer stretches, that’s when you can go back to getting that longer stretch yourself—at least 7 hours, every night, for optimum health. Your being in good health isn’t just good for you—it’s good for your baby to have a caregiver who is at their most healthy and alert.

Your being in good health isn’t just good for you—it’s good for your baby to have a caregiver who is at their most healthy and alert.

 

But—There’s an Exception! 

Every so often we hear of these radical human beings who get four hours of sleep per night. Many of them are CEOs, or people in other positions of power. What about them? Are there some people who need less sleep than others?

It turns out, there are!

Some people were born with what researchers are just starting to recognize as “the short sleep gene.”

Take Brad Johnson, age 64. Ever since he was a child, he can remember never being able to sleep for a full night. He would sleep 5 hours maximum, each night, then be wide awake and ready to go, well before some other members of his family.

“I'd get five hours and be done. Up, ready to go,” he said. “I wasn't groggy, I wasn't tired, just ready to roll and go.”

A remarkable fact: Brad has 4 other siblings, in his large family of 10, as well as his father, who are the same way. None of them could sleep more than 4 or 5 hours per night, even when they tried. They’d wake up at 3 or 4 AM, ready to go. They’d spend a lot of time reading, or exercising, or just finding ways to entertain themselves until the sun came up. And they didn’t seem to experience any negative health affects because of this, even though it happened every single night.

So why is it more than half the members of the Johnson family don’t sleep the recommended amount—and don’t seem to suffer any ill effects from this?

Researchers wanted to know. This led to the Johnson family becoming one of the first subjects of a study on “the short sleep gene.”

Researchers found other families that fit this pattern, and began their studies. In 2009, the research team published their first finding: that a mutation exists in the gene DEC2 which explains the short sleepers’ lack of sleep. This mutation allows them to stay awake longer than the average person. Since then, two more genes have been discovered—an ADRBI mutation and NPSR1 mutation—that affect neurotransmitters in the brain to create this short sleep.

During the studies, the research team bred mice with the same gene mutations. They reported the same findings: mice bred with the gene mutations naturally sleep less, with no negative health side effects.

The “Short Sleep Gene” and Personality

Researchers discovered other things people with the short sleep gene have in common. 90% to 95% of the short sleepers have “type A personalities,” meaning they were particularly driven and ambitious. What’s more, researchers found these people to have above average levels of positivity, extroversion, and optimism. Another perk: many had enhanced memories.

"They were not just awake, they were driven. It was torture for them to do nothing," said sleep specialist Chris Jones, a professor emeritus of neurology at the University of Utah, who worked on the Johnson family sleep study. "They like to run marathons—many of our natural short sleepers ran marathons—including mountain marathons where you go straight up. One of them decided he was going to build a violin, and he did.”

Even the mice in their studies shared these traits, including better memories.

What makes this last piece of information remarkable is that memory retention is usually linked to longer and better sleep. Sleep is the time when the body consolidates memories. Without 8 hours of sleep which includes necessary REM and deep wave sleep, most people struggle to remember things.

But not short sleepers.

Why? Researchers aren’t sure. These studies were interrupted by Covid 19,  so are still are ongoing.

thinking woman

So, Can I Learn to Be One of These People Who Can Function on Less Sleep? 

No!

We’re sorry to be the bearers of bad news, but this “short sleep gene” is just that: a gene. It is something inherited, not something you can teach yourself how to do.

We get it! Imagine all we could do with an extra 3 hours or more to our days. We could exercise more, get ahead on work, get laundry done on time, maybe even have some time to sit back and read a book … the possibilities would be endless!

But—none of that is worth sacrificing your health for.

So unless you are one of the lucky ones with the short sleep gene—and you would know if you are; sleeping fewer hours would leave you energetic and not at all tired, no coffee needed—you need to get your sleep. (Here are some tips on how.) It’s for your health (and the health of the whole family!)