You’ve surely heard somewhere by now that Tesla slept only two hours each night, and Margaret Thatcher slept only four. And they’ve lived well into old age, and never seemed to have been stopped by daytime fatigue!
We marvel so often at famous geniuses, successful entrepreneurs, political leaders and others who’re known to thrive on less than 5 hours of sleep each night. We love to talk about it – doesn’t this make it obvious that we don’t, after all, need 7-10 hours of sleep per night? Did they have specific methods? Is there a direct correlation between their ingenuity and unusual habits?
But let’s leave the notion of history’s giants and their influence for a while – their prominence inevitably steers the discussion about sleep in another direction. The thing is, they don’t all actually fall into the same category regarding sleeping habits. While some relied on alternative sleep cycles or maybe forced themselves to adopt a certain sleeping schedule, others were, in fact, natural-born short-sleepers. There are people – regular, non-famous people just like me and you – who fall into this category as well.
The world of natural-born short sleepers
You’ve surely encountered plenty of people who get by with six or less hours of sleep each night. But while the majority of adults who sleep little actually have a sleeping disorder or are restricted by busy schedules, natural-born short sleepers are completely different.
They simply don’t have the need to sleep more than a few hours. They wake up refreshed and well-rested and they don’t experience daytime fatigue, whereas the majority of us would definitely feel shattered. They keep their sleeping schedule consistent even on weekends, rarely ever sleeping in – and none of it feels remotely like a burden to them. They’re simply guided by their biological clock.
It’s fascinating to even imagine that someone can get by their entire life with approximately four hours of sleep each night, at their own will, and actually thrive and be entirely healthy. But there are people like that, and although this topic has gained interest in the scientific community fairly recently, it’s estimated that about 1% of the worldwide population are natural short-sleepers.
Just how is this possible, you may ask?
What the research says
Professor Ying-Hui Fu of the University of California in San Francisco is the prominent name behind the ongoing research on short sleepers. She started examining the phenomenon back in 1996, when a woman reported to her that her entire family got by on only a few hours of sleep. Having seen that none of them suffered from insomnia or any other sleeping disorder, but on the contrary, woke up energetic at dawn and stayed that way throughout the day, Fu delved into the family’s genetics and expanded her research.
The result: Fu and her team of researchers discovered a mutation in the gene DEC2 among all the subjects who were short-sleepers, but the mutation wasn’t present among their family members who slept longer or among other unrelated participants.
Although more research needs to be conducted, it seems that we have an invaluable clue: being a short-sleeper is the result of a gene mutation. Essentially, our genes largely dictate how much sleep we need, and we don’t all require the same amount of sleep. But the thing is, each one of needs to find their specific rhythm, and we’re much too constricted by society’s views of what presents a “normal sleeping pattern”.
Do you wish you’d sleep less too?
Let’s not kid ourselves – you probably do. Even if you didn’t wish you’d get more done each day, spending more time awake would mean you could take things slowly. The problem is – we wish we’d be short-sleepers too, so we try and sleep less. But it doesn’t work; we’re fatigued and miserable, waiting for vacation so that we can cram in some decent sleep.
So instead of forcing ourselves to sleep less, let’s first try and find out how much sleep feels good to us. This is actually not that easy to determine, and not just because we don’t have the luxury to sleep in most of the time. It’s because the number of hours we sleep each night is affected by the quality of sleep.
With noise and light pollution being the major issues, the quality of our sleep is largely trumped, so we actually require more sleep than usual in order to get proper rest. If you want to determine how much sleep you actually need, focus on sleep hygiene first: wear a sleeping mask to align your circadian rhythm, ensure your bedroom is entirely quiet or wear earplugs, avoid electronics two hours before bedtime, calm your thoughts down, and so on.
It takes time and conscious practice, undoubtedly, but the truth is that we all need to pay much more attention to our sleep. And for the most part, we need to start ignoring all the jabber about when we’re supposed to go to bed and how much sleep we need. We’re not all the same and our collective knowledge about sleep is very poor actually. So if you’re eager for some experimentation, you can even try a different sleep cycle to sleep less and see the results for yourself (just do it responsibly, of course).
Lastly, let’s not forget that there are long-sleepers too – people who need more than 10 hours of sleep each night to function their best. Who knows, you might even fall into this category. It’s kind of a bummer because your days are literally shorter if you end up sleeping as much as you should. But let’s not look at it that way. We need to embrace our sleeping patterns, whichever they are, just as long as we’re positive that they’re the most natural and healthy to us. Forget the sleep recipes of various productivity gurus – find your rhythm and structure your day around it to maximize your time on Earth.