Rare gene mutation allows some people to thrive on minimal sleep

In the U.S., working around the clock is still glorified. According to the documentary “Sleepless in America,” 40 percent of Americans are sleep-deprived. Many get less than five hours of sleep per night.

The cost is rarely considered, even though it includes reduced productivity and an increased risk of serious accidents.

Tired drivers are as dangerous as drunk or drugged ones, and experts believe sleep deprivation may have played a role in the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Staten Island ferry crash and the Three-Mile Island nuclear meltdown, just to name a few.

Besides raising your risk of accidents that may harm or kill you or others, research clearly shows that skimping on sleep will decimate your health in a number of different ways.

Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stated that lack of sleep is a public health epidemic, noting that insufficient sleep has been linked to a wide variety of health problems.

Genetic Mutation Makes Some People More Efficient Sleepers

Interestingly, there are a few rare individuals who can get by on very little sleep without incurring any noticeable harm. There’s an actual condition called advanced phase sleep syndrome — a genetic mutation that allows you to be fully rested after as little as four to six hours of sleep.1

In the TED Talk above, Ying-Hui Fu, Ph.D.,2 a professor at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) School of Medicine who studies the genetic basis for humans who have shorter sleep duration discusses some of her findings.

She and her colleagues have identified several genetic mutations that produce “extreme morning lark phenotype,” as well as mutations that allow short sleepers to thrive.

A 2009 study investigating a mother and daughter with this rare gift found a genetic mutation on a specific gene transcription facilitator may be responsible. The gene DEC2 is involved in the regulation of your circadian clock, which is part of the equation.

DEC2 also appears to induce more efficient sleep with more intense REM states, and researchers believe this is the primary reason why people with advanced phase sleep syndrome can thrive on so little sleep and suffer no ill health effects. According to Fu:3

“Clearly people with the DEC2 mutation can do the same cleaning up process in a shorter period of time — they are just more efficient than the rest of us at sleeping.”

Chances Are, You Need More Sleep Than You’re Getting

People with genetic mutations that allow them to be extreme short sleepers are also typically very optimistic and naturally energetic,4 Fu notes. Many work two jobs at a time, not because they must but because they’re highly motivated. And, since their sleep requirement is so low, they can.

However, the chances of you having this genetic mutation are very slim. It’s been estimated that far less than 1 percent of short sleepers (people who claim to function well on less than the normal seven or eight hours of sleep) have the mutation — the remaining 99 percent are actually sleep-deprived.

Another estimate is that 1 in 10,000 may be genetically predisposed to short sleep. For everyone else, you really need right around eight hours of sleep every night for optimal health and wellness.

According to Fu, if you deprive yourself of just two hours of sleep per night for one week, your mental alertness will be the same as if you stayed up for 48 hours straight.

Sleep restriction can also lower your motivation and enjoyment, so skimping on sleep to get ahead professionally or to have more time to do things you like is actually counterproductive.

Habitual Short Sleepers May Be More Tired Than They Realize

In another study,5,6 researchers at the University of Utah used MRI scans to look at the neurological wiring of habitual short sleepers, revealing those who did not report daytime dysfunction had enhanced connectivity between the hippocampus and the sensory cortices.

These areas are involved in memory and sensory input processing respectively. In other words, it appears short sleepers may be able to more effectively perform memory consolidation tasks during the daytime, thereby reducing their brain’s need for sleep.

That said, the researchers also found that many may actually be underestimating their need for sleep. The researchers first compared data from individuals who reported normal sleeping patterns with those who reported sleeping six hours or less.

The short sleepers were then subdivided into two groups: those who reported daytime dysfunction and those who claimed to function optimally.

Both groups had brain connectivity patterns that were more typical of sleep while in the scanner, opposed to patterns suggesting wakefulness, suggesting the short-sleepers were nodding off even though they’d been told to stay awake during the procedure.

On the one hand, this meant they were more likely to be engaged in memory consolidation tasks, which can occur even during quick nod-offs. On the other hand, it may also suggest they’re not quite as rested and functional as they imagine. As reported by R&D Magazine:7

“For short-sleepers who deny dysfunction, one theory is that their wake-up brain systems are constantly in overdrive. Which could mean that when they are trapped in boring fMRI scanners, they have nothing to do to keep them awake and therefore doze off.

‘It looked like the short-sleepers showed brain connectivity changes that look like they were preferentially falling asleep.

This was not only the case for short sleepers who reported being tired during the day, but also for the ones who said they felt fine,’ [Dr. Jeff] Anderson added … [T]hey may be falling asleep during the day under low-stimulation conditions, often without realizing it.”

3 Types of Short Sleepers

On the whole, researchers appear to agree that a vast majority of short sleepers are fooling themselves and really are not wired to get by on four to five hours of sleep. They’re also in agreement that you cannot train yourself to require less sleep.8,9

Likewise, natural short sleepers cannot force themselves to sleep longer, and will report feeling worse for wear if they do. As noted by Ethan Green, founder of No Sleepless Nights, there are three general types of short sleepers:10

  • Those who have a sleep disorder, such as insomnia, which prevents them from sleeping as much as they’d like
  • Those who falsely believe they don’t need much sleep and, for work, study or social reasons, chose not to sleep for more than six hours per night
  • True short sleepers, who due to their genetic makeup can thrive and function well on very little sleep

How can you tell if you’re a natural short sleeper? Green offers the following common-sense suggestions:11

  • Take a vacation of at least two weeks; ideally avoiding jet lag
  • If needed, take a couple of days to catch-up on lost sleep
  • Each night, go to bed at your normal time — preferably as soon as you feel tired, and do not set your alarm clock
  • Over the course of several days of going to bed and rising without an alarm clock, you will know how much sleep your body needs

Is It Possible to Become a More Efficient Sleeper?

While researchers such as Fu suggest we may one day be able to figure out a way to enable people to sleep less by tapping into our genetic code, until then, we’re stuck with our natural sleep needs. You can, however take steps to become as efficient a sleeper as possible. The most effective way of optimizing your sleep needs is to set and keep a consistent wakeup time. As reported by BBC News:12

“Neil Stanley, [Ph.D.,] an independent sleep consultant … says that when your body gets used to the time it needs to wake up, it can use the time it has to sleep as efficiently as possible. ‘Studies show that your body prepares to wake up one and a half hours prior to actually waking up. Your body craves regularity, so if you chop and change your sleep pattern, your body hasn’t got a clue when it should prepare to wake up or not’ …

Stanley says that a lot of people with sleep issues actually don’t have any problem sleeping, instead they have an expectation that they need to sleep for a certain amount of time. ‘If we could all figure out what kind of sleeper we are, and live our life accordingly, that would make a huge difference to our quality of life,’ he says.”

Risks Associated With Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation, or a lack of quality sleep, has a significant impact on your brain health and your overall health and wellness, including the following:

Increased risk of car accidents Increased accidents at work Reduced ability to perform tasks
Reduced ability to learn or remember Reduced productivity at work Reduced creativity at work or in other activities
Reduced athletic performance Increased risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity, cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease Increased risk of depression
Increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease Decreased immune function Slowed reaction time
Reduced regulation of emotions and emotional perception Poor grades in school Increased susceptibility to stomach ulcers
Exacerbates current chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and cancer Cutting one hour of sleep a night increases the expression of genes associated with inflammation, immune excitability, diabetes, cancer risk and stress13 Contributes to premature aging by interfering with growth hormone production, normally released by your pituitary gland during deep sleep

How to Improve Your Sleep Quality

Increasing the number of hours you sleep to eight each night and improving your quality of sleep may help to significantly reduce your risks associated with sleep deprivation. Below are several suggestions that may help.19,20 For a more comprehensive list of strategies, see my previous article, “Want a Good Night’s Sleep? Then Never Do These Things Before Bed.”

Turn your bedroom into an oasis for sleep

Your bed is a place to sleep and rest comfortably. Only two other activities will not significantly impede a restful sleep: reading and intimate relations with your significant other. Anything else, such as work, computers, cells phones or watching television will reduce the quality of your sleep.

Reduce any noisy interruptions from pets or outdoor activities. You might consider removing your pet from the bedroom or using a white noise machine to reduce interruptions from outdoor noises.

Establish a soothing pre-bedtime routine

Humans are creatures of habit. When you establish a soothing bedtime routine you go through each evening before bed, you’re more likely to fall asleep easily. Activities such as a warm bath, reading a good book or relaxation exercises may help you fall asleep easier.

Keep a consistent schedule

When you go to bed and wake up at the same times, your body becomes accustomed to the routine. This helps regulate your circadian clock so you fall asleep and stay asleep all night. Keep this routine even on the weekends.

Get plenty of bright sunlight exposure in the morning and at noon

Exposure to bright light first thing in the morning stops production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin and signals to your body that it’s time to wake up. Outdoor sunlight is best, so you might even want to take a quick walk outside.

Not only will this increase in physical activity help you sleep later, but taking your walk outdoors — either first thing in the morning or around noon when the sun high — gives you more exposure to bright sunlight.

Light intensity is measured in lux units, and on any given day, the outdoor lux units will be around 100,000 at noon. Indoors, the typical average is somewhere between 100 to 2,000 lux units, about two orders of magnitude less.

I take a one-hour walk every day in the bright sunlight on the beach, so along with boosting my vitamin D, I also anchor my circadian rhythm at the same time and I rarely ever have trouble sleeping.

At sundown, dim your lights (and/or use amber-colored glasses)

In the evening (around 8 p.m.) you’ll want to dim your lights and turn off electronic devices. Normally, your brain starts secreting melatonin between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m., and these devices emit light that may stifle that process. After sundown, shift to a low-wattage incandescent bulb with yellow, orange or red light if you need illumination.

A salt lamp illuminated by a 5-watt bulb is an ideal solution that will not interfere with your melatonin production. If using a computer or smartphone, install blue light-blocking software like Iris — an improved version of f.lux.

The easiest solution, however, is to use amber-colored glasses that block blue light. I found an Uvex model (S1933X) on Amazon that costs less than $10 and works like a charm to eliminate virtually all blue light.

This way you don’t have to worry about installing programs on all your devices or buying special light bulbs for evening use. Once you have your glasses on, it doesn’t matter what light sources you have on in your house.

Check your bedroom for electromagnetic fields (EMFs).

These can disrupt your pineal gland and the production of melatonin and serotonin, and may have other negative effects as well. To do this, you need a gauss meter. You can find various models online, starting around $50 to $200. Some experts even recommend pulling your circuit breaker before bed to kill all power in your house.

Exercise daily

Your body thrives on exercise and movement. It reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease and metabolic disorders. Exercise will help you get to sleep more easily and sleep more soundly. However, your body also releases cortisol during exercise, which may reduce your melatonin secretion. Exercise at least three hours before bed, and earlier if you can.

Keep your room cool

The optimal temperature for sleeping is between 60 and 68 degrees F. If your room is cooler or warmer, you may have a more restless night’s sleep.21 During sleep your body’s core temperature drops to the lowest level during a 24-hour period. The cooler your room is, the more conducive it may be to your body’s natural drop in temperature.

Evaluate your mattress and pillow

You’ll experience more restful sleep when your mattress and pillows are comfortable and supportive. You’ll want to consider replacing your mattress after nine or 10 years, the average life expectancy of a good-quality mattress.

Downshift your mental gymnastics before bed

Put all your work away at least one, and preferably two, hours before bed. You need a chance to unwind before falling asleep without being anxious about the next day’s plans or deadlines.