7:34am

Sat April 16, 2011
Research News

Eight Is Too Much For 'Short Sleepers'

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 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.