You can think of quality sleep like a big equation with plenty of variables that carry their own weight –– like your mattress, your health, your routine and so on. We now know that your genetics need to be added to the equation. Recent research has shown that sleep is, at least in part, impacted by our genetics.
A landmark study from 2009 led by Dr. Ying-Hui Fu and Dr. Louis Ptáček at the University of California discovered the genetic basis for short sleep. Participants reported that they averaged around 6.25 hours of sleep each night. The short sleep genes are hereditary and often found in families.
Here’s what you need to know about the three sleep genes:
- A mutation in the gene DEC2 impacts sleep length –– essentially, people with this mutation stay up longer and need less sleep.
- The ADRB1 mutation and NPSR1 mutation both have an impact on the neurotransmitters in our brains. It alters the wake/sleep cycle, creating “short sleep.”
- NPSR1 is the first short sleep gene also to be proven to prevent the memory deficits that we generally see when someone doesn’t get enough sleep.
- Short sleepers inherit their traits.
What Is the Short Sleep Gene?
The average adult should get between seven and nine hours of sleep each night for peak performance. When we don’t get enough sleep, we’re tired when we wake up, our decision-making skills and memory are compromised. Prolonged sleep deprivation just makes things worse.
Not getting enough sleep is linked to several side effects and health conditions in the long term:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Memory and concentration issues
- Mood changes
- Weight gain
Here’s the cool thing about people who live with the genetic mutation –– these side effects do not apply to natural short sleepers. For a small percentage of the population (seriously, a tiny number of people), the traditional 8-hour advice doesn’t fit. They are often called habitual short sleepers (HSS) or natural short sleepers (NSS).
Because of mutations in their genetics, they can get all the restorative sleep they need in only around six hours. When they wake up, they are refreshed and wide awake. Keep in mind short sleepers are not a condition or sleep disorder that needs to be fixed; it’s just how they are.
How to Determine if You’re a Short Sleeper
We’re just going to rip off the bandaid here; in all likelihood, you’re not a short sleeper. The “short sleep” genes are extremely rare. 12% of people have reported that they are fine on six hours of sleep, though there’s no way to know if they are naturally short sleepers or if they have just adapted to sleeping less. Don’t mistake your body’s ability to manage when sleep deprived. Just because you can function on less sleep doesn’t mean that’s what’s best for your body.
Short sleeper traits:
- Consistently sleep for six hours or less and naturally wake up after that amount of time.
- Wake up feeling refreshed and awake.
- They retain the ability to think clearly and make informed decisions despite sleeping very little.
- They don’t rely on coffee or naps to get through the day.
- Short sleepers have always slept less, even as children.
Additionally, there are certain personality traits that are associated with the short sleeper genes. Short sleepers are often: optimistic, more energetic and are excellent multitaskers. They also tend to have a higher pain threshold and somehow don’t suffer from jetlag like the rest of us.
The bad news is, there is no widely available genetic test for these mutations. So there’s no surefire way to know if you’re a short sleeper or not. But if you find you’re reaching for coffee or begging for a nap, it’s because you’re not getting the amount of sleep your body needs. Short sleepers aren’t shortchanging their sleep; they get exactly how much their body needs. They are essentially just more efficient at sleeping, and they get what they need from a fewer amount of sleep.
Too Long, Didn’t Read?
Right now, what we know is that most short sleepers are that way because of genetics. But the fact is, we don’t have enough research yet to conclude that for all short sleepers. Short sleep shouldn’t be confused with insomnia. People with the genetic mutation do sleep less, but they do not suffer from the daytime tiredness or poor concentration associated with insomnia.
The DEC2 genetic mutation that affects the body’s circadian rhythm is extremely rare. It’s estimated that only about 1% of the population are true natural short sleepers.
There are actually three genes that are associated with your circadian rhythm and sleep –– DEC2, ADRB1, and NPSR1. The mutations in these genes give some people the ability to sleep for less without feeling the side effects typically associated with little sleep. Essentially their bodies are more efficient at sleeping, and they get what they need from less sleep.
The DEC2 mutation was discovered in 2009. It was the first gene mutation to be related to short sleep. ADRB1 and NPSR1 were both found in mid-2019.
Sadly no, you cannot become a short sleeper. The genetic mutations are hereditary and often found in families.
The natural short sleep gene mutations are extremely rare. There is currently no widely available way to test for it. Keep in mind that habitual short sleepers suffer no side effects. But if you’re curious, you should consult your doctor about your sleeping habits.
Doctors generally recommend that the average adult sleep for around eight hours each night. Consistently getting less sleep than that can have some serious side effects on your health. Short sleep syndrome, however, does not run that risk. Short sleepers can sleep for less without feeling the effects.
For most people, getting consistently less sleep will negatively affect their health, ability to concentrate and mood. However, a small percentage of our population has the “short sleep gene,” meaning they wake up after around six hours, fully rested and ready for their day.