Life

Do you have the gene that means you only need a few hours sleep a night?

Posted by
Emily Reynolds
Published
Do you have the sleep gene that means you only need a few hours a night?

Wondering why some of us can get away with barely any sleep while others struggle? Science may finally have an answer…

There are those among us who never get enough sleep. Weekends are spent gloriously lying in until late, whilst weekday mornings are spent bleary-eyed and stumbling around looking for your contact lenses and barely staying awake on the Tube – even if you’re stood up and wedged between 15 different commuters. Then there are others who seem to be bright eyed and bushy tailed no matter how much sleep they’ve had: just five or six hours and they’re off, no problem.

Well, there might be a reason those lucky people are blessed with such an enviable sleep schedule – and it’s all to do with their genes. A study from the University of California, San Francisco, found that a specific gene might be responsible for giving some their ability to cruise along with fewer hours of kip. 

The study looked at 50 families, all who required less than six and a half hours of sleep every night to properly function the next day. In those families, it found a genetic mutation, ADRB1, which they believed was responsible for the ability. Relatives who had to sleep longer, it turned out, didn’t have the same gene. 

The team then took it one further, altering the gene in a group of mice. When it was tweaked, those mice slept for nearly an hour less than average. 

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How much sleep you should be getting is a source of contention – nobody seems to know how much we’re meant to get. The government recently released a paper on ‘sleep hygiene’ – the behaviours around bedtime that help (or hinder) our quality and quantity of sleep.

New guidelines are expected to suggest that getting less than seven hours sleep could damage your health, stating that “failure to sleep between seven and nine hours a night is associated with physical and mental health problems, including an increased risk of obesity, strokes, heart attacks, depression and anxiety“. 

And if you do need a little boost, research has recently discovered exactly how to have the best nap you possibly can. 

Twenty to 30 minutes is meant to be the perfect amount of time – this allows you to “turn off your nervous system, recharge the whole body and improve alertness”. If you sleep any longer, you’ll be in a “deep sleep”, and you’ll feel even groggier when you wake up. 

Between 1pm to 3pm is the best time to slot your nap in, if you were wondering – any later and you’ll end up impacting your night time sleep. 

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“Sleep is one of the most important things we do,” said the paper’s senior author Professor Ying-Hui Fu. “Not getting enough sleep is linked to an increase in the incidence of many conditions including cancer, autoimmune disorders, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s.

“It’s remarkable we know so little about sleep, given the average person spends a third of their lives doing it. This research is an exciting new frontier that allows us to dissect the complexity of circuits in the brain and the different types of neurons that contribute to sleep and wakefulness.” 

So whilst we might not be able to change our genes, we can at least understand a bit better why we find it so hard to wake up – though it’s probably not going to stand up to scrutiny if you use it as an excuse for being late for work. Sorry. 

Image: Getty 

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Emily Reynolds

Emily Reynolds is a journalist and author based in London. Her first book, A Beginner’s Guide to Losing Your Mind, came out in February 2017 with Hodder & Stoughton. She is currently working on her second.  

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