Published: April 16, 2011
Have you ever thought, "If only there were more hours in the day?"
Well, some people are able to function with far less than the recommended seven or eight hours of sleep a night.
"Short sleepers" make up just a small percentage of the population. If you think you're one, you're probably kidding yourself. True short sleepers don't need naps or coffee. With just five or six hours' sleep, they're more energized than regular sleepers.
Take 35-year-old Elena Angeli of San Francisco. She naturally sleeps about 5 1/2 hours a night, and then, well, just try to hold her back.
"I'm constantly moving," she says. "Outside of a full-time job, I sit on three boards, so I keep busy. I have a number of friends all over the world, so I've got constant activity to keep up with."
A Quick Look At The Short Sleeper
Of course, researchers want to learn more about short sleepers. Dr. Ying-Hui Fu, a human geneticist and neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, is part of a team that has found genetic mutations in short sleepers. Fu tells Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon about some common characteristics.
"A lot of them are very energetic; they are multitaskers," Fu says. "They have two or three jobs, and they feel great."
They're not just sleep-deprived like hundreds of millions of other people; they genuinely thrive on four to six hours of sleep a night. "Ever since a young age, most of them," Fu says.
Angeli says she hasn't needed much sleep for as long as she can recall.
"My mother says that I stopped napping when I was about 3," she says. "She would peek into the room, and I would stare right back at her."
Short sleepers also tend to be thin and have faster metabolisms. Other research has shown metabolism and sleep are connected, Fu says, but it's not clear yet whether short sleepers are thin because of a fast metabolism or just because they're just so darned active.
They're more than just energetic, too. Researchers say they have more positive attitudes and even a higher tolerance for pain. "Yeah, they can sustain more pain than the rest of us," Fu says.
Angeli says she had dental work done on an exposed nerve twice — without painkillers.
"It's not that I don't feel pain; I do," she says. "I just probably don't interpret it in a negative way and fixate on it."
Sharing The Short Sleeper's Secrets
Ten years into the study, Fu says her team is just getting started. Meanwhile, she often gets asked how one might acquire the condition for himself. Unfortunately, she says, if it's not in your genes, you're out of luck.
"I wish I had it," she says with a laugh. But someday, her team's research may lead to a way for all of us to spend less time sleeping, she says. "That's my long-term goal, and to get there is probably going to be a while." As a mother, Fu admits that she could use a few extra hours in the day herself.
Those extra hours are a positive, Angeli thinks, but there's a drawback.
"Generally, society functions around people who sleep for nine hours, so I can't go out to do grocery shopping at five in the morning. So I'd love to be able to get more done." [Copyright 2013 NPR]
SCOTT SIMON, host:
Have you ever thought, if only there were more hours in the day? For some people there really are; so-called short sleepers. They make up just a small percentage of the population. If you think you're one, you're probably kidding yourself. True short sleepers don't need naps or another cup of coffee. On just five or six hours of sleep they tend to be more energized than those of us who sleep for seven or eight hours.
Take 35-year-old Elena Angeli of San Francisco. She says she naturally sleeps about five and a half hours a night, and then, just try to hold her back.
Ms. ELENA ANGELI: I'm constantly moving. Outside of a full-time job, I sit on three boards, so I keep busy. I have a number of friends all over the world so I've got constant activity to keep up with.
SIMON: Says she hasn't needed much sleep for as long as she can recall.
Ms. ANGELI: My mother said that I stopped napping when I was about three and I can remember that. And I can remember that. And she would peek into the room and I would stare right back at her.
SIMON: Now, Elena Angeli thinks that being a short sleeper is basically good, because it gives her more hours to do more things.
Ms. ANGELI: But generally society functions around those people that sleep nine hours. So, you know, I can't go out and do grocery shopping at 5 in the morning. But I'd love to be able to get more done.
SIMON: Researchers say that short sleepers have more positive attitudes, faster metabolism and a high tolerance for pain. Elena Angeli says that she's had dental work done on an exposed nerve twice without pain killers.
Ms. ANGELI: It's not that I don't feel pain. I do. I just probably don't interpret it in a negative way and fixate on it.
SIMON: Of course researchers want to learn more. Dr. Ying-Hui Fu is a human geneticist and neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco. And she's part of a team looking at Elena Angeli and other short sleepers.
Dr. Fu joined us in our studios and says that she's found some common characteristics among short sleepers.
Dr. YING-HUI FU (Neurology, School of Medicine, UC San Francisco): A lot of them are very energetic. They are multitaskers. A lot of them email me they have two or three jobs and they feel great.
SIMON: So let me understand this. Are they genuinely people who get by and thrive on only a few hours of sleep every night or are they, like hundreds of millions of other people, sleep deprived?
Dr. FU: They thrive on four to six hours of sleep every day, ever since a young age, most of them.
SIMON: Yeah. Now, I'm told that many of them are also thin. Does that suggest something different about their metabolism?
Dr. FU: Well, I think because they are so active, first of all, so that might be connected. With the metabolism it's difficult to make a conclusion now because we know that sleep is somehow connected to metabolic problems. So whether they are thin because of metabolic thing or they're thin because they're active is hard to tell.
SIMON: They also share a relative imperviousness to pain.
Dr. FU: Yeah. They can sustain more pain than the rest of us.
SIMON: So you're in the middle of a study now, right?
Dr. FU: Yeah, this is - we are just at the beginning of the study actually. You know, it's been 10 years, but we are just beginning - at the very beginning of going into this study.
SIMON: Dr. Fu, you must have people who say to you, How do I get that genetic condition.
Dr. FU: Yes. Yes. A lot of people ask me. And I ask them myself.
(Soundbite of laughter)
I wish I had that. But right now there is no way, you know, in human the gene -to replace your gene is still not possible. I think our hope is someday if we understand the mechanism enough that we can come up with something or maybe a pill or something that people can take and then can regulate your mechanism and help you with your mechanism to be more like those short sleepers' mechanism and therefore you can function with less sleep and without damaging your cognitive function or your health.
SIMON: So that's the implication of your research for most people at the moment?
Dr. FU: That's my long term goal. And to get there it probably is going to be a while.
SIMON: Why is that a good idea, if everybody feels that they've got to take a pill to only sleep four hours a night?
Dr. FU: I think that to me, for instance, I am a mom. I'm a scientist. It's just I have so many roles that I'm playing that I feel like a few more hours a day will be really useful for me. And another thing is these people are very active, you know. One of our subjects actually dances four nights a week. So...
SIMON: Dances four nights a week?
Dr. FU: Yes.
Dr. FU: And she's more than 70 years old, you know. So there are, you know, traits about them that I think if we can mimic them I think it's beneficial.
SIMON: Dr. Ying-Hui Fu, human geneticist and neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco.
Thanks so much.
Dr. FU: Thank you.
(Soundbite of music)
SIMON: So no more lazing around. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.