Short sleeper syndrome: definition, causes, and therapy

  • Short sleeper syndrome is a condition that allows you to operate with less than six hours of sleep.
  • It affects around 1% of the population, including celebrities like Barack Obama and Martha Stewart.
  • People with short sleepers also show signs of hypomania, impulsiveness, and a high instinct for reward.
  • Visit Insider’s Health Reference Library for more advice.

People with short sleeper syndrome sleep 4 to 6 hours a night and still feel rested and awake the next day.

Although this rare condition affects around one percent of the population, there are a number of well-known people who claim they operate regularly with very little sleep, including Barack Obama, Martha Stewart, and Jack Dorsey, the founders of Twitter.

Here’s what you need to know about short sleep syndrome, including its symptoms, causes, and treatments.

Understanding short sleeper syndrome

Sleep experts may refer to a person with short sleeper syndrome as a “habitual short sleeper” (HSS) and a “natural short sleeper (NSS),” says Paula G. Williams, PhD, associate professor at the University of Utah’s Department of Psychology who studied short sleepers.

Although about 30% of Americans report regular short sleep attacks, many are clinically not short sleepers because they feel unrested the next day.

The main symptom of short sleeper syndrome is sleeping consistently for six hours or less and feeling fully functional the next day. However, from her research, Williams found other traits that are consistent in most short sleepers.

“Those who do not report any diurnal dysfunction related to their short sleep and who are characterized by hypomania, impulsiveness and high reward instincts would meet the criteria of short sleepers,” says Williams. “They tend to engage in stimulating activities that will enable them to overcome drowsiness.”

Williams says that short sleeper syndrome is much different from a condition like insomnia. For example, people with insomnia would be characterized by higher levels of anxiety. “These people typically report fatigue, lack of rest, and dissatisfaction with their short sleep,” she says.

diagnosis

Many people with short sleeper syndrome may not seek diagnosis from a doctor because it is not causing adverse health effects, says Lynelle Schneeberg, PsyD, assistant professor at the Yale School of Medicine and American Academy of Sleep Medicine Fellow.

However, you may be sleep deprived and not even realize it. So if you sleep 6 hours a night or less, it’s important to get a diagnosis, Shneeberg says. “The ideal would be to rule out insomnia and other medical sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, which can lead to insomnia.”

When diagnosing a diagnosis, a doctor will look for behaviors that people with short sleep syndrome tend to exhibit:

  • You usually have this sleep pattern most of your life, from childhood or young adulthood, and are a short sleeper whether on a weekday, weekend, or vacation.
  • They don’t use sleep aids to help them fall asleep – they just fall asleep at about the same time each night, sleep six hours or less, and wake up at about the same time each day.
  • Short sleepers instinctively tend to sleep certain hours each night. Conversely, someone with a sleep disorder may report waking up several times during the night and not feeling rested the next day.

Schneeberg says anyone with irregular sleep patterns could benefit from a “sleep test”. If so, they may be asked to track their sleep through an app like CBT-i Coach, a wrist-worn wearable device, or a handwritten sleep log that you get from an organization like the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASP).

After tracking their sleep patterns for 14 days, the doctor may order an electroencephalogram (EEG), which will record the person’s brain waves. At the same time, their heart function would be recorded by electrocardiography (EKG). These would help in assessing a person’s sleep health as well as whether or not they are a short sleeper or whether their brain activity is indicative of a sleep disorder such as insomnia.

causes

Little is known about the cause of short sleeper syndrome, but researchers have found compelling evidence that at least some of it is genetic.

One of the leading researchers in the field is Ying-Hui Fu, PhD, professor of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco and a member of the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, who has been short sleepers for nearly 25 years. Which is not an easy task as they make up around 1% of the population.

Over the years she has discovered some of the genes she calls “short nap”:

DEC2

In 2009, Fu and her colleagues identified a genetic mutation, DEC2, that is known to affect the circadian rhythm.

After doing DNA screenings on hundreds of blood samples from 70 families of people who took part in sleep studies, they found the mutation in two people, a mother and a daughter. Both had frequent short sleeper symptoms, as they slept an average of about 6.25 hours a night, slept from about 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. each night, and felt functional the next day.

Fu and her colleagues then continued testing DEC2 on animals. The scientists bred mice and fruit flies with the same mutation, and they slept less and recovered faster than mice and fruit flies without the mutation.

ADRB1

Ten years later, in mid-2019, Fu and her team revealed findings about a second “short sleep” gene in a family that had three consecutive generations of people with symptoms of short sleep syndrome.

They discovered a single letter mutation in the ADRB1 gene and then tested their on mice to confirm that the mutated form of ADRBI promotes natural short sleep.

Interestingly, the family with the mutation in their ADRB1 gene lacked the DEC2 gene from Fu’s 2009 . This suggests that the short sleep syndrome is not limited to a specific gene, but is more complicated.

NPSR1

In October 2019, Fu and her colleagues reported that they had found a third “short sleep” gene when they identified a point mutation in neuropeptide S-receptor 1 (NPSR1).

They discovered it in a father and son – who sleep an average of 5.5 and 4.3 hours a night, respectively – while performing full exome sequencing on a family of short sleepers, and the were published in Science Translational Medicine. Similar to the short sleepers with the DEC2 and ADRBI genes, father and son also naturally slept less than six hours a night and had no negative effects from their short sleep habits.

The researchers then analyzed the mutation in mice and found that they were more active and slept less – and, as a result, had no cognitive impairments. Additionally, the study’s results suggest that NPSR1 prevents memory problems that normally occur due to lack of sleep – and it’s the first gene to do so.

treatment

Since short sleepers are functional during the day and are not affected by reduced sleep times, treatment is neither typical nor necessary.

Schneeberg agrees. “It’s untreatable if the person is really a short sleeper,” she says. “So you should just keep being a short sleeper – and consider yourself lucky, as most of us would spend more time doing what we enjoy.”

However, Jerry Siegel, PhD, professor of psychiatry and bio-behavioral science at the UCLA Center for Sleep Research, says, “A distinction needs to be made between people who spontaneously sleep less than average and people who are deprived of sleep for one reason or another . ”

When it comes to insomnia or some other sleep disorder, as opposed to a short sleeper, these criteria flow into any diagnosis or treatment.

Meanwhile, “the only recommended treatments for sleep are behavioral therapies,” he says, like falling asleep and getting up at the same time each day and avoiding stimulants like caffeine before bed.

Other good sleep hygiene practices, according to the CDC, include not using electronic devices before bed, avoiding large meals 2-3 hours before bed, and getting exercise during the day.

Long term health effects

For the average adult, it can lead to a variety of negative health effects, including anxiety, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.

Just because short sleepers do not experience these side effects does not necessarily mean that it is safe to sleep only 4-6 hours each night. Researchers just haven’t found any long-term health effects. Though Fu told Business Insider that her lab is investigating this.

Williams also says that the jury has not yet decided whether some people who sleep less than six hours really do not have any negative effects on their health.

“So far I have not been convinced that someone with a short sleep can really ‘get away’ without any repercussions, even if he is not aware of them,” says Williams. “We just don’t know if these types of people will avoid the effects of short sleep, including cardiovascular disease, inflammation, cognitive deficits, gain, mood disorders, and all-cause mortality.”

To match Williams’ point, a 2010 report found that short sleepers are at risk for heart disease. Similarly, Williams and her colleagues found preliminary evidence that the lack of perceived diurnal dysfunction in some habitual short sleepers does not protect against the risk of cardiovascular disease.

In other words, even though they reported they didn’t need more sleep, the short sleepers showed a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, she says.

Insider tips

Overall, Willliams says that while short sleepers feel “good” with less sleep and appear to have no metabolic problems, she believes that their objective functioning, both mentally and physically, needs additional research.

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