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Is it Dangerous to Be a Chronic Short Sleeper?

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Is it Dangerous to Be a Chronic Short Sleeper?

Aug 08, 2018

Most research says getting less than the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep a night can be detrimental to your health. But as many as 10 percent of Americans report that getting six hours or less a night seems more than enough. Researchers Paula Williams and Brian Curtis discuss their study on whether or not short sleepers can really be healthy.

For more information on the study or to participate, visit

Episode Transcript

Announcer: Health information from experts supported by research. From University of Utah Health, this is

Interviewer: We all know someone that sleeps six hours or less each night and then they claim that doesn't bother them. Actually, they say they thrive on little sleep. Is that really the case, or is it really not good for their health? Paula Williams is an associate professor of clinical psychology at University of Utah. And Brian Curtis is a clinical psychology PhD student. And they are part of a research team that is researching a phenomenon called "short sleepers," and these are people that sleep six hours or less a night and report no ill effects.

So the first thing I think we need to do, and Paula, would you please define what a short sleeper is? I kind of summarized, but did I miss anything there?

Dr. Williams: Well, at the broadest level, it is someone who sleeps six hours or less a night on average. The recommendation is seven to nine hours. The people we're interested in, though, are also habitual short sleepers. That is, regardless of the work schedule or vacation schedule, these are people who tend to sleep six hours or less.

Interviewer: Yeah. And we all know, maybe, you know, you are one. Are you a short sleeper?

Dr. Williams: I am not.

Interviewer: How about you? Are you a short sleeper, Brian?

Brian: I'm an insomniac, but that's a whole different . . .

Interviewer: Oh really?

Brian: Yeah. I've had insomnia. My mother has insomnia. My three older brothers have insomnia. So it's in the family.

Interviewer: Sounds like it, yeah. I'm definitely not a short sleeper. But about 30% of the United States are short sleepers the way you define them. But then there's a 10% subset. Explain what that group is like.

Dr. Williams: Right. So about a third of the population report they don't sleep more than six hours. And within that group, however, there is a small percentage, maybe 10% we think, that feel fine on six hours or less. They don't feel the usual negative effects that most of us would. That would include fatigue and irritability, etc.

Interviewer: And they claim they're different almost. It seems like.

Dr. Williams: Yes. For some it's a badge of honor that, "I can, I feel fine. I don't need much sleep. I feel good." And so they're a fascinating subgroup of people that we want to understand better.

Interviewer: And it can be concerning because the question is, is that really the case? Or are they just as susceptible to the detriments of lack of sleep that the rest of us are?

Dr. Williams: Right. At a minimum, we can say that they feel better. And so that's something in and of itself. But there are lots of other questions about whether cognitively, objectively they are functioning as well as they perceive themselves to be. There is a whole area of psychology that is looking at the discrepancy between self-assessments and objective assessments. And that's something that's of interest to us.

Interviewer: And, Brian, short sleepers think that they function just as good as somebody who's gotten the seven to nine hours if not better. Why do they think that way?

Dr. Williams: That's the million dollar question.

Dr. Brian. That's why it took me aback. I mean, that's just how they feel. I mean, they are reporting that in fact they feel just as good and in my experience, talking to these individuals, often better. I mean, these people they tend to be almost the flipside of what you would expect, at least what they're reporting, of somebody who has been sleep deprived or who's sleeping six hours or less. In other words, instead of having less energy, they report having more energy. Right? So this concept of behavioral drive, these people are always on the go it seems.

A couple of these participants have told me that their idea of hell is just nothing to do. Like what if we put you in a room, you don't have your phone, you have nothing to read, right, that to them is very, very off putting.

So this high degree of stimulation, behavioral drive and they just feel fine. They've been told by many, many people that something is either wrong with them or, you know, there are a bunch of negative health consequences, but they just feel fine.

Interviewer: So I would love to be able to get two extra hours a day, right? So is there a way I can become a short sleeper? Are there strategies that they're using to actually survive on less sleep, or are they just genetically different than you and me?

Dr. Williams: Right. We don't know, and that's why we're researching this question. It's a question that we get a lot because everybody wants to do more in less time, to have more time, etc.

But, you know, there's too much research out there on short sleep duration and health consequences that we need to look at this subgroup more specifically.

Interviewer: To see if that applies to them.

Dr. Williams: Exactly. So it's possible that someone is feeling fine, but they're not fine. So we just need to know more. And we need to know how their partner perceives them as well. So part of what the research would look at is, what do other people report in terms of their behavior and their functionality.

Interviewer: How could a person determine if they or a loved one are a true short sleeper? I mean, is it just simply cut and dry as they're not getting the seven and nine hours of sleep that they should?

Brian: I think the most important thing there is, if you take away societal obligation, you take away needing to wake up early for work or to stay up late to study, whatever it is in your environment that's dictating your sleep schedule. If on the weekends with a lot of opportunity, right, you're still getting six hours or less a night, if you're on vacation, that's still the case, often with these individuals this isn't something that started in college or when they got a high pressure job. A lot of these people report that they've kind of always been this way, reaching far back, even into childhood.

And it's also not uncommon to hear that they may not be the only person in their family that tends to have this sleep pattern as well. So there seems to be a familial pattern of short sleep. And that's been borne out at least in one study that our research colleagues, Chris Jones and his geneticist collaborators, they found a mutation in a mother and a daughter. And when you put that human mutation into mice, you now have short sleeping mice. And not only short sleeping mice, but these mice run more on their running wheels during the day. So you have a behaviorally driven mouse.

So this was back in 2009. That's almost a decade old. And since that time, we haven't found a similar slam dunk mutation in families. So it does appear that these genetic short sleepers may be very, very rare. But assessing them objectively into the lab and getting more of these people is the goal now.

Interviewer: I would be a little scared if I was a short sleeper right now, because of all of the evidence that's out there that says, "If you're not getting seven to nine hours, you know, it could be detrimental to your health." And we don't know a lot about whether or not it is. So if I am a short sleeper, do I worry? What should I do? Should I try to get more sleep?

Dr. Williams: No. These are important questions. But the reason we don't know is that the vast amount of medical research is epidemiological. It looks across the population and looks at associations. What we're trying to get at now are individual differences. That is, are there differences between people in the effects? And we know that at least in perception there are.

Interviewer: But as far as behavior changing, if I'm a short sleep or have a loved one, really, at this point, nothing you should do. I mean, if it's true short sleeping, that you're not, you know, getting up because you have responsibilities, you're not sleeping because of stress, but you just naturally do that, just get up after six hours.

Dr. Williams: You know, a question I would ask somebody is, what are they doing to stay awake, for example, because one of the things we think about some of these short sleepers, given what Brian just said about behavioral drive is that they are seeking out stimulating activity in the night. And what I would recommend is pulling all environmental stimulation. You know, what we should be sleeping in is the equivalent of a cool, dark cave. If you put yourselves in that kind of situation, do you still not sleep? Right?

Interviewer: Yeah. So that might be a good thing to check.

Dr. Williams: Yeah.

Interviewer: A good experiment to do.

Dr. Williams: I would do that. And all kinds of things we know, like having a routine, trying to sleep at the same time, not having in a hot environment, noisy environment, all of these things, light blocking shades. Try all of those things. And then see how your sleep is.

Interviewer: And you might discover, it turns out, you're a regular sleeper.

Dr. Williams: Right. Or, I mean, part of what I study is personality and so that's part of what we see is that people are behaviorally different around sleep. In fact, sleep might really be part of personality.

Interviewer: So if somebody is concerned that maybe they should take a look at some of their sleep hygiene things or some lifestyle things. Ultimately it might end up that they're just sleeping six hours, because that's just how they're wired, and at that point, I mean, at this point, what do you do then?

Brian: They get in touch with us.

Interviewer: And become part of your research study.

Dr. Williams: Part of the research.

Interviewer: Okay. And how would they do that?

Brian: So our laboratory has a website. It's And on that website there there's a section for the short sleepers study. They can go there, read up a little bit about the background. And if they're still interested, there's a quick questionnaire that they can complete online about eligibility criteria. And then a member of a research team will get back into and go forward from there.

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