Those who can get by on less than five hours of sleep have been found to carry a special gene, which experts believe negates the effects of sleep deprivation.
Ying-Hui Fu, a sleep researcher at University of California, says that those who carry the rare DEC2 gene appear to have a ‘resistance’ against the health risks which normally come with too little sleep.
“My lab uses human genetics to gain a better understanding on this topic,” she writes on Reddit. “We’ve found that sleep behaviour is heavily influenced by our genetic makeup.”
“Just like many other traits - height, weight, body shape - sleep behaviour is at least partly inherited. We discovered a mutation in the DEC2 gene that allows some people to sleep only four to six hours a night and feel completely refreshed.”
Though getting too little sleep is thought to heighten the risk of cardiovascular diseases and impaired brain function, Fu believes that the gene changes a person’s typical circadian rhythm – our natural body clock.
Getting to much sleep, in fact has the opposite effect on these people, who are left feeling groggy and out of sorts by the recommended eight hours.
Answering questions about her research on Reddit, Fu says: “From what we can tell and from what they told us, these short sleepers are pretty energetic. And we believe that they feel refreshed [after just a few hours’ sleep] since they can go on all day and be active.”
“We have not seen any health problems associated with these people. Some of our research subjects are in their 90s. On the flip side, these natural short sleepers feel, in their own words, ‘awful’ if they sleep more.”
Since there’s currently no test available for people to discover whether they do indeed have the DEC2 gene, Fu suggests listening to your body to determine just how much sleep you really need.
“The best way [to establish how much sleep you need] is to listen to your body and figure out what is the best schedule and duration for yourself.”
“For example, when you are on vacation and have no social responsibilities and no other external influences, what is your body telling you to do and how do you feel? What makes you feel the best most of the day? Although that may sound primitive, it’s still the most accurate way.”
She also encourages people to step away from sleep monitoring apps and technology, branding them largely useless.
“Today’s popular wearables can only measure movement and maybe heart rate. They cannot tell you anything about the quality of your sleep,” she notes.
“To really know the quality of sleep, we have to be able to measure EEG (electroencephalogram) during sleep. Most EEG devices are difficult to use and expensive.”
So is there a quick fix to getting by on less sleep if you’re not a carrier of the super gene? According to Fu, no. And experimentation isn’t worth the health risk.
“I was one of the people who hated sleep and tried everything there was to sleep less before I started this research. Now, I wish I never messed with my sleep in my younger years.
“From what I know, it is not worth it. It will increase your chance of having health problems later on and it definitely will affect your mental vigilance.”