A debate about the minimum amount of sleep has been going on for a long time, both within society and the scientific community. The main concern is the effects of the shortening of sleep time. There are no studies that directly link sleep shortening (sleep curtailment) and sleep insufficiency, so there are still no proven links between the reduction of sleep time and the reduction of sleep opportunity. However, epidemiological studies have shown that both short and long sleepers have higher death rates. Short sleep has been defined as sleep that lasts less than 5 hours, and long sleep lasts for more than 8 hours.
A study done by Penn State University showed that people with insomnia and short sleep had a higher risk of hypertension and diabetes. They also found that among people who slept less than six hours, men had a more significant mortality risk than women.
Other studies have also found that adults between the ages of 30 and 45 that sleep for short periods have a higher chance of having a metabolic issue that involves a combination of cholesterol problems, upper body mass index, and high blood pressure. Short sleep has also been linked to reduced cognitive functions, especially with middle-aged adults and seniors. Younger individuals have a lower risk of dying than older people, but they can also have certain consequences if they sleep less than recommended. Among the consequences is lower general health. However, longer sleep is not a danger for young adults. One study discovered that short sleeping provides a greater sleep debt which imposes a self-sleep restriction. Additionally, the shift-work sleep disorder is a condition that happens to people who have unique and particular work hours that affect their sleep and causes diminished rest times.
Short Sleeper Syndrome
Short sleeper syndrome (SSS) is a condition that involves sleeping for less than six hours each night. Adults should sleep for seven or more hours to feel rested in the morning. Those who have short sleeper syndrome can function properly during the day despite having less sleep. They do not have to take naps or even sleep more to recover from lack of rest. Individuals with this condition do not purposefully avoid or restrict their sleep, their minimal amount of sleep happens naturally every night. Their sleep pattern usually develops in childhood or adolescence and advances into adulthood.
People who sleep less than six hours a day and still manage to be functional during the day may be diagnosed with short sleeper syndrome. They can perform their duties at work or school despite the lack of sleep. Also, they don’t feel the need to sleep more on weekends or take naps during the day.
This syndrome is not considered a sleeping disorder, but it can have similar effects on our bodies in general, such as trouble falling asleep or staying asleep during the night, fatigue, frequent waking up throughout the night. Those symptoms should be shared with a doctor, who can, in order to make a proper diagnosis, subject you to the Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire containing nineteen questions about the issue. Furthermore, in order to establish whether you function better in the morning or the evening, he may give you the Munich Chronotype Questionnaire, or instruct you to keep a sleep diary with precise information on how long you sleep at night, how many times you wake up, if you take naps during the days and so on.
There is some scientific evidence that suggests this syndrome is linked to a gene mutation. The University of Pittsburgh did a study in 2014 with identical twins that showed a smaller percentage of people has a gene for short sleep. The twins were compared, and the one with the short sleep mutation was able to outperform its sibling in simple cognitive tasks. The change within the gene enables individuals with the mutation to think and function with less sleep than others. However, scientists are still not able to understand the full complexity of our sleep and how genes influence it.
So, there is a difference between having a short sleeper syndrome and not sleeping enough on purpose. This difference can be determined through certain laboratory testing such as actigraphy (where you wear a portable device on your wrist or ankle, measuring the level of activities during various phases of the day for one week) or polysomnography (where you are tested during sleeping in the lab, measuring brain waves, heart rate, oxygen supplies, etc.).
Polysomnography (sleep study)
A sleep study, also called polysomnography, is a suitable method of diagnosing short sleep syndrome. The study is performed in a lab specialized to study your mind and body while you are sleeping. The doctors observe you and watch all your data about oxygen levels, heart rates, brain waves, breathing rates and sleep patterns to see if you have a sleep disorder.
To determine if you have the syndrome or no, you can wear an actigraph. It is a portable device that you wear around your ankle or wrist for a week and during that time the device measures the level of activities and the time of day when they happen. This method determines certain aspects of sleep such as the periods of wakefulness or sleep.
Sleeping troubles need to be addressed with natural remedies, such as arranging dark, cool and quiet bedroom to help send a message that it is night time, according to our natural body rhythms. In that respect, the time for going to bed should be the same each day. For people working in shifts, there is a particular device called a lightbox, which resembles sunlight and can help such individuals perceive the night as a day.
Light therapy uses artificial light to help regulate sleep with a light box that makes full-spectrum light that mimics sunlight. This therapy is especially useful for individuals who need to synchronize a specific schedule and rest. The treatment has proven to be great for night shift workers to help them experience night as day.
There is also a cognitive behavioral technique called chronotherapy, which offers a precise sleeping and waking schedule to train our brains to observe the right rhythm. You need to follow a one-month schedule before making changes to your sleep. The goal of this therapy is to retrain your brain, avoid naps and create three-hour delays for your bedtime for at least six days before reaching the adequate amount of sleep.
Your sleep hygiene is a combination of tools you need to use in order to restore restful sleep. An excellent way to maintain a healthy sleep is to start specific habits that will help you. These habits are especially beneficial for individuals who have troubles staying asleep or falling asleep. Some of the things you can do are:
- Electrical devices should not be placed in bedrooms, or if necessary, should be placed at least a few feet away from the bed.
- Alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine should not be taken some time before going to bed. Likewise, eating greasy food or sweets should be avoided.
- Naps are not recommended in such cases, or at least not longer than thirty minutes.
- Sunshine exposure during the day is favorable, as well as regular exercise, but not in the evening.
Short sleepers may not have to cure their syndrome since they do not necessarily have to be at risk. In fact, according to research, only 1% to 3% of people have this syndrome. Some findings indicate short sleepers can deal with the lack of sleep more efficiently than others.
Some very famous individuals in our history are known to have slept less, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Nikola Tesla, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, etc. They believed that sleeping is a waste of time, preventing them from performing more. Tesla, for example, allegedly slept for two to three hours a day. He might have adopted a sleeping system called polyphasic sleep, which envisages sleeping 1.5 – 2 hours a day, taking a nap 15 – 20 minutes for every four hours awake. While this may be a way for great minds to save time, science does not back this method for other people, except maybe for those whose work is related to staying awake longer than usual.
Some professions tend to impose less sleeping, due to the amount of work to be done, or the level of responsibility. For example, actors have long shootings, so they need to spend 18 hours at the set, which leaves them 6 hours to sleep. Presidents usually sleep less than 6 hours, given the responsibilities they carry on their shoulders. Also, employees in healthcare, law enforcement, teaching, and journalism tend to sleep less, so maybe people who cannot function on short sleeping should avoid these professions.
People with insomnia, though, should face the problem and try to find the right solution, since their condition can lead to severe health damage. They should not mistake their disorder with short sleeping since there is a difference in how it affects them.
Iva is an art historian and an art lover who always had a passion for writing and sleep! When she is not researching and testing new mattresses on the market, you can find her binge-watching TV shows, eating tons of junk food or playing with her dog Bart.