Live More, Sleep Less

By Kyle Munkittrick | April 5, 2011 10:16 am

You will spend a third of  your life asleep. If you don’t, your waking hours will be of reduced quality and productivity. For 99% of us, seven hours a night is biological necessity. For a select 1%, what Melinda Beck at the Wall Street Journal dubs the “Sleepless Elite,” less sleep equals more life. So-called short sleepers operate with a kind of low-intensity mania which allows them to go to bed late and wake up early without needing a gallon of coffee to get through the day. And, as it turns out, the ability might be genetic.

“My long-term goal is to someday learn enough so we can manipulate the sleep pathways without damaging our health,” says human geneticist Ying-Hui Fu at the University of California-San Francisco. “Everybody can use more waking hours, even if you just watch movies.”

Dr. Fu was part of a research team that discovered a gene variation, hDEC2, in a pair of short sleepers in 2009. They were studying extreme early birds when they when they noticed that two of their subjects, a mother and daughter, got up naturally about 4 a.m. but also went to bed past midnight.

Genetic analyses spotted one gene variation common to them both. The scientists were able to replicate the gene variation in a strain of mice and found that the mice needed less sleep than usual, too.

Dr. Fu’s research is a reason for excitement because the goal is not just to locate the gene, but to find a way to manipulate sleep pathways safely. For those of us already alive, that means there might be better, safer, more effective stimulants in the future. For those not yet born, genetic engineering may enable future generations to spend less time sawing logs and more time enjoying life. More life! Less sleep! It’s like a longevity enhancement that does nothing to extend your time alive, but instead maximizes your use of that time. But how do short sleepers use their time?

And this, my fine friends, is where the real benefits of whatever genetic magic short sleepers possess comes into focus. Our immediate instinct when we hear we can get a benefit is “what is the cost?” For example, less sleep? I bet I’ll become crazy. Or moody. Or more sleep won’t mean I’m more productive. What ever makes me more energetic will make me too addled to focus.We are programmed by experience to be skeptical of too-good-to-be-true offers. The cynical part of me is reminded of a quote from LCD (R.I.P.) Soundsystem’s jam “Pow Pow:” “But honestly, and be honest with yourself, how much time do you waste? How much time do you blow every day?”

Would we really do any more with our lives if we had more time awake? What are the lives of short sleepers like? University of Utah neurologist Christopher Jones has found common traits among short sleepers in addition to their ability to only catch a few winks:

To date, Dr. Jones says he has identified only about 20 true short sleepers, and he says they share some fascinating characteristics. Not only are their circadian rhythms different from most people, so are their moods (very upbeat) and their metabolism (they’re thinner than average, even though sleep deprivation usually raises the risk of obesity). They also seem to have a high tolerance for physical pain and psychological setbacks.

“They encounter obstacles, they just pick themselves up and try again,” Dr. Jones says.

Short sleep research is still in its early phases, but most of those studied thus far are successful, productive, happy individuals. They quite literally get more out of life. Short sleepers don’t spend a third of their time on this planet asleep. I need to get me some of that.

I’m sad to say I still need a whole pot of java after my requisite seven hours to be a normal human being. Fingers crossed for a pharmaceutical solution sometime soon.

Follow Kyle on his personal blog and on facebook and twitter.

Image of sleepy businessmen via Wikipedia Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics, Neuroscience
MORE ABOUT: Short Sleepers, sleep

Comments (16)

  1. Cathy

    The science fiction book “Beggars in Spain” explored this exact topic, only they were genetically manipulated to not require sleep at all. And the sleepless were indeed happier, healthier, and more productive (although a few of them were also quite manipulative.) They were also immortal, but hey, we can dream right?

  2. something unique

  3. I’m one of those weird people who doesn’t mind sleeping eight hours a night and has no desire to be immortal. Although even I have to admit it would’ve been easier to be an elite non-sleeper when I had a baby! Maybe the 1% could become incredibly rich being night time nannies for all of us who actually need 7 hours to feel good (or in my case 8+).

  4. Kim

    Okay, I need to get my gene modified, please! Or can I “train” my gene?

  5. Bee

    I can echo Julia. I like sleeping. I don’t need and wouldn’t want a gene for short sleeping. (Although I likewise have to admit our twins’ first months were an exercise in sleep deprivation.)

    I’d also be interested what’s the average life expectancy of the short sleepers?

  6. wwwald

    Where do I subscribe?!

  7. Patrick

    What’s so hard to believe about some people needing so little sleep? Sleep requirements vary radically among animals. Some need as little as 2 hours a day, and others like the koala spends the vast majority of its time asleep.

  8. Good point, Bee. Dr Fu has stated clearly that these people sleep less but we don’t yet know if they will suffer from any mortality or morbidity issues long term.

  9. Cyndera

    I find this article disturbing. I don’t find sleep to be wasting my life. In sleep, our egos become flexible and we become open to the larger dialogue of our psyches. A lot of our ideas and inventions come through the process of dreaming. Our society has an overemphasis on “doing” and sleep is the ultimate way to just be. Suggesting that we could do away with sleep by genetic alterations or “healthy” stimulants reminds me of when people started believing baby formulas were superior to breast milk. Nature has developed rhythms that suit our lives. As most of the nation is sleep deprived and drinking caffeine, we are already seeing effects of anxiety, etc. Enjoy the sweet milk of life, SLEEP! And if you can’t sleep, meditate.

  10. yue

    used to ghd straighten hairin accordance with the different materials of heating plate can be divided into: pure ceramic heating plate, the surface of the aluminum spray ceramic glazes and glass-ceramics

  11. IanW

    “I still need a whole pot of java ”

    I didn’t know they grew pot in Java, but whatever floats your boat…!

  12. Jo

    Short Sleeping is a curse and maybe a blessing. I do more but I do it alone. I don’t have friends who are awake at 4:00 am. so I become my own best friend. Optimistic – yes, energetic – yes, thin – no, moody – no, bounce back fast – yes, caffeine – no, always working – yes, average sleep/night – 4 hours. It is just very lonely.

  13. short sleeping has been a blessing for me. i have taken adveantage of it and ran many businesses sucessfully. i never sleep more than 5hrs. i do like my coffee but thats not what i wokeup for i drink it on th way to work.
    i am 5-6 135pds. 57yrs.old
    i may not sleep but i am certain i will out live many people that believe it is a must to get there 8hrs. in. most still nap and are over weight

  14. i am so glad there is a study on short sleepers. i was thinking i was the only person that had this gene. after reading some comments and findings i know for sure i am a short sleeper. i could write a book on my life exp. being a short sleeper. i used to call myself a workaholic. short sleeper sounds better

  15. Excuse me for pointing out something that should be obvious, but a large body of research suggests that at least one key function of sleep is consolidation of memory, and more importantly, integrating new memories with existing ones. If members of the technoprogressive/transhumanist crowd are serious about memory enhancement, they might pursue increasing the quality of sleep, and thereby improving the quality of cognitive function, rather than offering up short-sighted and facile suggestions such as the development of pharmacological manipulation to reduce time ‘wasted’ sleeping.

  16. @Peter, Jessica Payne at Notre Dame has done a lot of research proving the role of sleep in memory consolidation.
    @jim jr, make sure you do not doze of while driving.
    @Cyndera, you are correct, sleep is an investment not an expense.

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