Short Sleeper Syndrome: What Causes Short Sleep Duration?

Short sleeper syndrome is when a person does not sleep for longer than 4 – 7 hours per night. This is often not by choice, as they can’t seem to sleep for a longer duration even if they wanted to. Many of the short sleepers out there only require a short duration of sleep to function optimally. Other short sleepers wish they could sleep for a longer duration, as their short sleep tendencies tend to leave them feeling fatigued in the daytime.

If your DNA test reveals that you have a short sleep duration, it means that your body only requires a short amount of sleep per night in order to maintain optimal performance.

What Causes Short Sleep Duration?

Sleep duration tendencies are often genetic sleep patterns written in your DNA. Based on your DNA, you could require only 4 hours of sleep per night, while others require twice that much sleep to function at the same performance level as you.

Aside from genetics, there are also some sleep disorders, mental illnesses and lifestyle habits that can cause short sleeper syndrome. This includes:

  • Stress and anxiety: The quality of your sleep (including the duration of time you sleep for) can be impaired by stress or anxiety disorders.
  • Sleep disorders: Health conditions that fall under the category of sleep disorders, including sleep apnoea and restless legs syndrome, could impact your ability to sleep for a longer duration.
  • Lifestyle habits: Poor sleep hygiene, too much screen time, excess caffeine or alcohol consumption and poor eating habits can all impact sleep quality and sleep duration.
  • Genetic markers: Some people have genetic markers that cause poor glucose metabolism, resulting in sleep duration that is too long or too short.

Why Do Some People Need Less Sleep?

Some people can function at an optimal performance level even if they only sleep for 4 – 7 hours per night. Perhaps you’re one of these people, or perhaps you’re envious of these people. After all, what could you accomplish if you could add 3 extra waking hours to your day?

Success and sleeplessness seem to go hand-in-hand, with a lot of famously successful people being notoriously short sleepers. Martha Stewart, for example, only sleeps for around four hours per night. So does Indra Nooyi, former chairperson and CEO of PepsiCo., while Tom Ford manages with only three hours. They seem to be doing great, despite being short sleepers.

Back in 1904, a man named Al Herpin, who lived in Trenton, New Jersey, even made the outlandish claim that he went ten years without sleeping a wink.

An assertion such as Al Herpin’s might be pretty far-fetched, as it’s agreed upon within the scientific community that all humans need to sleep, and that we do even when we’re not aware of it.

While there are quite a few people who choose to limit their sleep, there are some of us out there who require an astonishingly small duration of sleep to function and get by.

In fact, many of these short sleepers aren’t just getting by on a very small sleep duration; they’re thriving. How is that possible?

This burning question is exactly what Dr Ying-Hui Fu, Ph.D. and Dr Louis Ptacek, MD. have spent the last 10 years researching.

So, is it really possible for some of us to get the rest we need in half the time? Can a person really function off as little as 4 hours of sleep?

woman lying on grass front of sea at daytime

Short Sleep Syndrome

How much sleep would you say you average in a given week? The vast majority of us need between seven and nine hours of sleep. Between our screens and our hectic schedules, kids and other responsibilities, a lot of us fall short through the week and try to catch up on sleep on the weekends. However, sleep experts agree that for the healthiest, most restful sleep, it’s best to maintain a somewhat consistent sleep schedule seven days per week.

When we have one night of bad sleep, we feel confused and irritable the next day, but generally there are no real effects on our health. Continuous lack of sleep, however, can have severe ramifications to our physical and mental health. Potential health problems include heart complications such as heart attack and stroke, depression, paranoia, impaired immunity or obesity, just to name a few.

However, there is a small percentage of people (around 1% of us) who only sleep between 3 and 5 hours per night without experiencing any of the side effects mentioned above.

Short sleep syndrome is a medical condition characterized by extremely short sleep patterns in comparison to the majority of the population. While there are many people out there who purposefully put a cap on their sleep or suffer from insomnia and are unable to sleep for as long as they need, Short Sleep Syndrome is different in that the individual simply doesn’t need more sleep. They’re getting the rest they need, in a much shorter amount of time.

Can Gene Mutations Cause Short Sleep Duration?

Back in 2009, Dr. Fu met a mother and daughter who had a life-long history of short sleep cycles with seemingly no negative side effects.

Fu’s research led her to discover the first gene positively identified in regulating the length of sleep.

DEC2 is a gene that regulates our circadian rhythm by inhibiting the transcription of orexin, a peptide that regulates wakefulness. People with a mutation of the DEC2 gene have increased orexin production, which in turn decreases the amount of sleep one needs.

This was an exciting find, as it opened the door for more research into the role our genes play in our need for sleep. You can read more about hDEC2 here.

ADRB1 and NPSR1 Mutations

After Dr. Fu’s breakthrough, she started hearing from families all across the country who had similar sleep patterns or recent changes to their sleep schedules. Her research continued, and in 2019 she and her team discovered a second genetic mutation pertaining to sleep; ADRB1. When mice who had this genetic mutation were observed, it was found that they had less non-REM and less REM sleep than mice with normal genes. Further, they had higher levels of the gene in the dorsal pons, the area of the brain responsible for subconscious activities like breathing and heartbeat regulation. Her findings were published in the August edition of Neuron.

Only weeks later, a third sleep gene was identified, NPSR1, which is linked to both our sleep patterns and our memory. For people without this mutation, short sleep cycles will lead to cognitive decline and very apparent issues with memory. However, short sleepers with the NPSR1 mutation, are able to preserve their long-term memories despite their short sleep cycle.

Short Sleepers and Sleep Efficiency

Do you fall asleep quickly, or do you lie in bed waiting for sleep to come? If you’re prone to spending an hour or two staring at the ceiling before drifting off, you may suffer from poor sleep efficiency.

Sleep efficiency is determined by comparing the number of minutes we spent sleeping to the total number of minutes spent in bed trying to sleep (so time in bed reading or scrolling does not contribute to your sleep efficiency score). A ‘good’ sleep efficiency score is considered 85% or higher.

You can figure out your sleep efficiency score by dividing the hours spent sleeping by the hours spent in bed.

There are a number of factors that can contribute to poor sleep efficiency. Aside from obvious factors like stress, diet and environmental stimuli that can keep you awake, sleep debt certainly has a role to play. Studies have found that it can take four days to catch up on one hour of sleep debt.

What’s interesting about naturally short sleepers (people who have a short sleep duration) is that they seem to be getting more efficient sleep in less time. Two studies that have been done found that short sleepers got less REM sleep and more slow-wave sleep, or deep sleep, than ‘long’ sleepers, but since we don’t yet fully understand why we need sleep, it’s hard to pinpoint what this means in terms of how it benefits the short sleepers.

Furthermore, many test subjects had a more positive disposition and higher energy levels than people without the gene mutation had after a full night’s sleep.


Can You Change Your Sleep Patterns and Sleep Longer?

Are you someone who struggles to get a night of restful sleep? Do you wish you were not a short sleeper, and could sleep for a longer duration each night?

Below are a few things you could try to help you fall asleep and stay asleep:

1. Make your sleep sacred.This means setting a bedtime and devoting time to winding down and preparing your mind and body to fall asleep.

2. Try using earplugs, an eye mask and/or a white noise machine to eliminate environmental stimuli that could wake you up.

3. Melatonin is a hormone that our bodies already produce but taking it in the form of a supplement can help regulate sleep-wake cycles. Be sure to consult a doctor before beginning a melatonin regimen as long-term use can have negative side effects.

If you struggle to stay asleep or find yourself waking up hours before your alarm goes off, you’re not alone. Unfortunately, stressing about how little sleep you had inevitably heightens anxiety, making it even more difficult to fall back asleep, and the whole thing becomes a vicious cycle.

If you’re constantly waking up too early, visit your doctor. They will be able to treat or rule out any underlying medical issues that may be causing you to wake up before you’re ready such as restless leg syndrome, thyroid issues, hormonal disorders or neurological illnesses.

Extending Your Sleep Duration

It might be best for you, health-wise, to figure out a way to sleep for a longer duration. In some cases, a visit to a sleep clinic may be in order, where a sleep doctor may prescribe bright light therapy, also known as phototherapy. It works by stimulating cells within the retina that connect to the part of the brain that controls the circadian rhythm. Successful bright light therapy can be effective in gradually shifting your sleeping pattern back to a ‘normal’ rhythm. Cognitive behavioural therapy can also be used to reduce the anxiety around waking up too early and improve your thought pattern around sleep, making it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep.

For example, instead of lying in bed thinking about how tired you’re going to feel because you woke up too early, try getting out of bed and reading until you feel sleepy again. Or, start your day and lay down for a nap in the afternoon, if possible.

In addition to genetic markers that can cause poor glucose metabolism and impact sleep duration, other genetic factors can impact your sleep as well. Certain people may have specific genetic traits that make them more prone to developing insomnia, as well as psychiatric disorders like depression that can affect sleep.

A DNA test can confirm whether or not you carry sleep-inhibiting traits, as the CircleDNA reports include many sleep reports based on your unique DNA. You’ll find out if you’re genetically more likely to have a short sleep duration, more likely to be a night owl, or more likely to be a light sleeper. With that knowledge, you and your doctor can work together towards more restful nights.

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