Narrator: Health information from experts, backed by research. From the University of Utah Health, this is thescoperadio.com.
Interviewer: We all know someone who sleeps six hours or less every night and then claims it doesn’t bother them. In fact, they say they thrive on little sleep. Is that really the case or is it really not good for your health? Paula Williams is an Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Utah. And Brian Curtis is a graduate student in clinical psychology. And they’re part of a research team studying a phenomenon called “short sleepers,” and that’s people who sleep six hours or less a night and don’t report any ill effects.
The first thing I think we need to do, and Paula, would you please define what a short sleeper is? I sort of summarized it, but did I miss something?
dr Williams: Well, broadly speaking, it’s someone who sleeps an average of six hours or less a night. The recommendation is seven to nine hours. But the people we are interested in are also habitual short sleepers. That said, regardless of work or vacation schedule, these are people who tend to sleep six hours or less.
Interviewer: Yes. And we all know maybe you are. Are you a short sleeper?
dr Williams: I’m not.
Interviewer: And you? Are you a short sleeper, Brian?
Brian: I have insomnia, but that’s a whole different thing. . .
Interviewer: Oh really?
Brian: Yes. I had insomnia. My mother has insomnia. My three older brothers have insomnia. So it runs in the family.
Interviewer: Sounds like it, yes. I’m definitely not a short sleeper. But about 30% of the United States is short sleepers, as you define it. But then there is a subset of 10%. Explain what this group is like.
dr Williams: Right. About a third of the population say they sleep no longer than six hours. And within that group, however, there’s a small percentage, we think maybe 10%, who feel good about six hours or less. They don’t feel the usual ill effects that most of us would experience. These include fatigue and irritability, etc.
Interviewer: And they claim that they are almost different. As it appears.
dr Williams: Yes. For some, it’s a badge of honor: “I can, I feel good. I don’t need much sleep. I feel good.” So they’re an intriguing subset of people that we want to understand better.
Interviewer: And it can be worrying, because the question is, is it really like that? Or are they just as vulnerable to the downsides of lack of sleep as the rest of us?
dr Williams: Right. At least we can say that they feel better. So this is something in itself. But there are many other questions about whether they are functioning as well cognitively and objectively as they perceive themselves to be. There is a whole area of psychology that deals with the discrepancy between self-assessment and objective assessment. And that interests us.
Interviewer: And, Brian, short sleepers think they’re doing just as well, if not better, than someone who got in the seven to nine hours. Why do you think like that?
dr Williams: That’s the million dollar question.
dr brian That’s why it amazed me. I mean, that’s how they feel. I mean, they report that they actually feel just as good, and in my experience often better, when they talk to these people. I mean these people tend to be almost the flip side of what you would expect from someone, at least what they report, from someone who is sleep deprived or who sleeps six hours or less. In other words, instead of having less energy, they report having more energy. Right? So this concept of behavioral drive, these people seem to be always on the go.
A few of these participants have told me that their idea of hell is just doing nothing. For example, if we put you in a room, you don’t have a phone, you don’t have anything to read, right, that’s very, very repulsive to them.
So this high level of stimulation, urge to behave and they just feel good. They have been told by many, many people that either there is something wrong with them or there are a lot of negative health consequences, but they just feel good.
Interviewer: So I would like to get two extra hours a day, right? So is there a way to become a short sleeper? Are there strategies they use to actually survive on less sleep, or are they just genetically different from you and me?
dr Williams: Right. We don’t know, so we’re investigating this question. It’s a question we get asked a lot because everyone wants to get more done in less time, have more time, etc.
But you know, there’s too much research on short sleep duration and health outcomes for us to look at this subset.
Interviewer: To see if that applies to you.
dr Williams: Exactly. So it’s possible for someone to feel good, but they’re not doing well. So we just need to know more. And we also need to know how her partner perceives her. Part of what the research would examine is what other people report in terms of their behavior and functionality.
Interviewer: How can a person tell if they or a loved one is a true short sleeper? I mean, is it just cut and dry because they’re not getting the seven and nine hours of sleep that they’re supposed to?
Brian: I think the most important thing is when you take away the social obligation, you take away the need to get up early for work or stay up late to learn whatever your environment is dictating your sleep schedule. If you can still get six hours or less a night on the busy weekends when you’re on vacation, that’s still the case, often with these individuals it’s not something that started in school or when they’re a got a high-pressure job. Many of these people report that they have always been like this, going back as far as childhood.
And it’s also not uncommon to hear that you might not be the only person in your family who is also prone to this sleeping pattern. So there seems to be a familial pattern of napping. And at least that’s what was confirmed in a study where our fellow researchers Chris Jones and his geneticist collaborators found a mutation in a mother and a daughter. And if you put this human mutation in mice, you now have short sleeping mice. And not just short dormice, but these mice run more on their wheels during the day. So you have a behavior-controlled mouse.
So that was in 2009. That’s almost a decade old. And we haven’t found a similar slam dunk mutation in families since that time. So it seems that these genetic short sleepers are very, very rare. But the goal now is to get them objectively into the lab and get more from these people.
Interviewer: I’d be a little scared if I got a nap right now because of all the evidence out there that says, “If you don’t get seven to nine hours, you know, it could be detrimental to your health.” And we don’t know much about if it is or not so if i have a short sleep i worry what should i do should i try to get more sleep
dr Williams: No. These are important questions. But the reason we don’t know is that the vast amount of medical research is epidemiological in nature. It looks across the population and looks at associations. What we’re getting at now are individual differences. That is, are there differences between people in the effects? And we know that there is, at least in perception.
Interviewer: But in terms of behavior change when I’m sleeping or having a loved one, really, at that point you shouldn’t do anything. I mean, if it’s really short sleeps, you don’t get up because you have responsibilities, you don’t sleep because of stress, but you do it naturally, you just get up after six hours.
dr Williams: You know, one question I would ask someone is, for example, what do they do to stay awake, because one of the things we think about some of these short sleepers, given what Brian just said about behavioral drives , is that you are looking for more stimulating activity at night. And what I would recommend is to subtract all environmental stimuli. You know, where we’re supposed to sleep is the equivalent of a cool, dark cave. When you put yourself in such a situation, are you still not sleeping? Right?
Interviewer: Yes. So that’s a good thing to check.
dr Williams: Yes.
Interviewer: A good experiment.
dr Williams: I would do that. And all sorts of things that we know, like having a routine, trying to sleep at the same time, not having a hot environment, noisy environments, all those things, blackout blinds. Try all of these things. And then see how your sleep is.
Interviewer: And maybe you’ll discover how you turn out to be a regular sleeper.
dr Williams: Right. Or, I mean, part of what I’m studying is personality, and that’s part of what we’re seeing is that people behave differently while they’re asleep. In fact, sleep might actually be a part of personality.
Interviewer: So if anyone has concerns, maybe they should look at some of their sleep hygiene or lifestyle stuff. Ultimately, it could end up with them only sleeping six hours because they’re just wired that way, and at that point, I mean, at that point, what do you do then?
Brian: You contact us.
Interviewer: And become part of your research studies.
dr Williams: Part of the research.
Interviewer: OK. And how would you do that?
Brian: So our lab has a website. It’s restlab.psych.utah.edu. And on this website there is a section for the short sleeper study. You can go there, find out a little bit about the background. And if they’re still interested, there’s a short questionnaire they can fill out online about the eligibility criteria. And then a member of a research team comes back in and goes from there.
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