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Sleep

Are You a Genetically Short Sleeper?

Millions of people may have a genetic mutation to sleep 4–6 hours instead of 8.

Key points

  • Trying to get more sleep can take on a life of its own, becoming another source of anxiety, obsession, and perfectionism.
  • Oversleeping can negatively impact sleep quality.
  • Extreme early birds, as people with the gene mutations may be called, often feel tired in the early evening and wake in early morning hours.

There are so many factors that influence sleep, it's hard to identify all of them, much less control them. We attempt to get eight hours because myriad headlines preach this to a sleep-deprived nation. Trying to get more sleep can take on a life of its own, becoming another source of anxiety, obsession, and perfectionism. We can even get superstitious about it; not just managing light, temperature, and wake time, but also becoming preoccupied with just the right mattress and pillow, position, snack, music, supplement, or other sleep accessory.

 Creations/Shutterstock
Source: Creations/Shutterstock

What Are Genetically Natural Short Sleepers?

We have all heard “more sleep is better,” but this is only mostly true. One to 3 percent of the population need six hours or less due to a genetic mutation and are formally called natural short sleepers. This term means that there are no apparent harmful health effects for people with this mutation who sleep less than the recommended average eight hours.1 (Typical health problems from sleep deprivation are well-documented and range from increased risk of diabetes and heart disease to dementia, mood disorders, and substance abuse.)

Dr. Ying-Hui Fu, a neurology professor at University of California San Francisco, and colleagues have found two different gene mutations that are associated with the circadian rhythm of short sleepers. They first discovered the DEC2 gene mutation in 2009 when studying two women who slept six hours per night and did not seem to suffer expected adverse health consequences.

In 2019, Dr. Fu and colleagues discovered another gene mutation, ADRB1, in a family who slept closer to four hours per night.2 Sleep experts are quick to point out that these mutations are rare, and although well over 20 percent of the population sleeps close to 6 hours per night, only a fraction of them actually have a gene mutation to suggest they are following their natural circadian rhythm. The majority of us still need more sleep, but considering 2 percent of the population may have one of the above mutations, there could be 140 million people fearful that the less than eight hours they have been sleeping is killing them, when it isn’t.

Extreme early birds, as they are popularly called, often feel tired in the early evening and wake in early morning hours. Their peak time for focus and productivity is in the morning. They feel fine with less sleep, if not for the obsessive pressure to pursue eight hours.

More Sleep Can Make You Feel Worse.

Many people who attend my workshop (The Art of Sleep) exhaust themselves trying to force the eight-hour issue, and it is not only frustrating, but it often backfires. First, relief can be felt when you stop comparing yourself to what you think others are doing or what you “should” be doing. An average also means that some people will need less (and some more), with or without a gene mutation. Add a gene mutation and it may be even worse, leading to more tossing, turning, and ruminating in bed when they could be awake, feeling better.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), the gold standard for insomnia according to the American College of Physicians, teaches us that oversleeping can negatively impact sleep quality. For example, if you overslept an hour or two today beyond your usual waking time, your sleep quality may not be as good tonight because the rhythm of your sleep and waking over 24 hours has been altered. If you only dozed in this morning, you may feel worse because you only added broken, shallow sleep. So, either way, overall sleep quality decreases when you sleep in.

How Will I Know if I Oversleep?

You “catch up” by going to bed early or sleeping in rather than following your regular schedule. You likely know already if you have early bird tendencies. Honor a regular routine using all of the zeitgebers, or anchors, to guide a healthy sleep routine. If you tend toward neurotic thought patterns, shy away from putting too much emphasis on one factor that will lead to good sleep and focus more on making your day as pleasant as possible, regardless of how you slept.

References

He Y, Jones CR, Fujiki N, Xu Y, Guo B, Holder JL Jr, Rossner MJ, Nishino S, Fu YH. The transcriptional repressor DEC2 regulates sleep length in mammals. Science. 2009 Aug 14;325(5942):866-70. doi: 10.1126/science.1174443. PMID: 19679812; PMCID: PMC2884988.

Shi G, Xing L, Wu D, Bhattacharyya BJ, Jones CR, McMahon T, Chong SYC, Chen JA, Coppola G, Geschwind D, Krystal A, Ptáček LJ, Fu YH. A Rare Mutation of β1-Adrenergic Receptor Affects Sleep/Wake Behaviors. Neuron. 2019 Sep 25;103(6):1044-1055.e7. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2019.07.026. Epub 2019 Aug 28. PMID: 31473062; PMCID: PMC6763376.

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