If you’ve been following us for a while, you know that we need seven to nine hours of sleep per night to function properly. Less sleep may lead to a host of physical and psychological problems such as sleep disorders, sleepiness, lower productivity, and unhealthy sleep behaviours. It is standard knowledge, based on years of research by scientists all over the world.
However, what if you have a natural sleep time of six hours or less? You experience natural short sleep but don’t feel the effects of sleep deprivation. What gives? You may be a natural short sleeper! Your ability to feel energised after little sleep comes from the recently discovered short sleep genes.
What is normal sleep like?
Although people today intentionally disrupt their natural circadian rhythms with alarms, coffee, pills, and late-night activities, human beings are made to have sleep cycles of seven to nine hours. It takes the body this much time to recover, recuperate, and rebuild. Through REM sleep and non-REM deep sleep, your mind consolidates your memories, and neurotoxins are cleansed from the brain during the common sleep period as well. With enough sleep, you should be more productive, more energized, and be healthy in mind and body.
What is the short sleep gene?
Context of the study
Sleep has been studied for decades, owing to the reality that most of the world’s population suffer from lack of sleep or poor sleep. Sleep research aims to bring solutions and aids to the global sleep problem. To this end, professor of neurology, Ying-Hui Fu, at the Weill Institute for Neurosciences at the University of California, San Francisco, and sleep specialist, Chris Jones, professor emeritus of neurology from the University of Utah, looked into an advanced sleep-phase syndrome.
The first discovery
Advanced sleep-phase syndrome allowed people to average only 6.25 hours of sleep every night. These individuals usually sleep at around 7 or 8 p.m. but wake up at the early hours of 2 or 3 a.m. Fu and Jones deduced that a gene appeared to be responsible for this short sleep ability.
Their team later discovered a genetic mutation called DEC2 as the cause of short sleep. Research subjects who did not inherit the gene mutation slept for an average of 8.06 hours. Their discovery meant the first conclusive evidence of sleep-altering genetics. DEC2 is a rare mutation, however, and other genes seemed to factor into short sleep as well.
More short sleep genes
In a new study, Fu and Louis Ptáček, the John C. Coleman Distinguished Professor in Neurodegenerative Diseases, identified three consecutive generations of family members who had natural short sleepers. However, none of them had DEC2.
With the use of gene sequencing and the linkage analysis technique, the new team looked through the family’s genome. Eventually, they discovered two other genetic mutations in the ADRB1 and NPSR1 genes. Experimentation with lab-grown cells and mice confirmed the discovery.
In the cell experiments, a protein in the ADRB1 gene, the beta-1 adrenergic receptor, in its mutant form degraded quicker than its non-mutant form. The degradation suggested that the protein functioned differently than usual. The receptor serves a role in different biological processes.
Meanwhile, with mice, the ADRB1 gene exists in abundance in the region of the brainstem responsible for regulating sleep. With the use of optogenetics, the research team genetically engineered the mice to have the equivalent of an ADRB1 mutation. Afterwards, the mice were focused on light. The light aimed to stimulate neurons that highly expressed the ADRB1 gene. Because of the light, the mice roused from sleep. From this, the team concluded that the ADRB1 gene mutation helps develop brains that can instantaneously wake up and stay awake for a long time, without bringing the effects of sleep deprivation
What the short sleep gene does?
These genetic mutations have clearly gifted certain individuals with natural short sleep. However, what does the ability mean to the lives of those who only have a sleep duration of five hours or less? What are short sleepers like?
Fu and Ptáček’s team have found that natural short sleepers have ambitious personalities. Despite the amount of sleep they get, they tend to be highly productive, accomplishing many tasks and activities that they set out to do. In fact, the people who participated in the study were avid marathon runners. One even wanted to build a violin, and he actually did. Despite all of this ambition and productivity, short sleepers also have optimistic and outgoing attitudes.
At the same time, short sleepers have impeccable memories, despite having such brief sleep patterns. The mice in the experiments of the research showed the same traits—active, productive, and an excellent memory. These qualities only manifest in average people after a good night’s sleep of seven to nine hours. Sleep quality must also be high, with the brain has gone through each essential sleep phase for better sleep. The genetic mutations in short sleepers seem to give them the ability to have a full rest on fewer hours of slumber.
The researchers admit, however, that the mentioned personality traits do not necessarily appear in every short sleeper. By their estimate, probably around 90% to 95% of short sleepers exhibit personalities. There may be a tiny minority with contrary qualities.
The gift of short sleep
The research on short sleep continues, and the sleep experts aim to find out the secret behind short sleep. The study will hopefully yield results that may help the rest of the sleep-deprived world.
If you are a short sleeper, you have been truly blessed. You now know why you can be energetic despite having less sleep.