It turns out some people are genetically able to cope with less sleep

Getting enough sleep has always been considered an important part of maintaining good health. But, it turns out, some people are genetically capable of getting by with less sleep.
Christopher McFadden
A woman waking up and stretching.
Some lucky few can function perfectly on less sleep.


  • Sleep is considered an important aspect of maintaining good health.
  • Getting enough sleep has clear mental and physical health benefits, and should be made a priority in your life.
  • But, as you are about to find out, some "lucky" individuals are able to naturally cope with much less sleep than most people.

Do you get enough sleep at night? Or, are you burning the midnight oil night after night? While it may seem that sleep is "wasted" time, not getting enough sleep on purpose could be something of a false economy.

But, what is the right amount of sleep anyway? Research shows that this can have a big variation — and it may all come down to genetics.

The average amount of sleep

We all know intuitively that getting enough sleep is vitally essential for your health, well-being, and, frankly, sanity. But how much is actually enough? The amount of sleep a person needs can vary greatly depending on age, lifestyle, and overall health.

It turns out some people are genetically able to cope with less sleep
Do you get enough sleep?

However, according to the National Sleep Foundation, the following can be used as very rough ballpark:

  • Newborns (0-3 months): 14-17 hours each day
  • Infants (4-12 months): 12-16 hours
  • Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours
  • Preschoolers (3-5): 10-13 hours
  • School-age children (6-12): 9-12 hours
  • Teenagers (14-18): 8-10 hours
  • Younger adults (18-25): 7+ hours

Those in their Golden Years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), can usually get away with a bit less sleep:

  • Seniors 61-64: 7-9 hours
  • Seniors 65+: 7-8 hours

However, most people over 60 need considerably less sleep than they did in their younger years. They also, on average, go to sleep earlier and rise earlier than when they were in their youth.

All that being said, it is essential to note that these are just guidelines. Everyone is unique, and the amount of sleep you should get or need will differ. It may also vary throughout the year, month, and even by day, depending on how much rest and recovery your body and mind require.

Factors that could affect how much sleep you need include levels of physical activity, stress levels, diet, and underlying health conditions. It's also worth noting that your sleep quality is as important as the quantity. If you wake up frequently during the night or feel tired during the day, it might be a sign that you're not getting enough high-quality sleep, even if you're spending the recommended amount of time in bed.

Talking to a healthcare provider is important if you consistently have trouble falling or staying asleep. They can help identify any underlying issues and provide guidance on how to improve your sleep.

Why is sleep important?

As far as we can tell, sleep has a long evolutionary history as an important part of animal behavior. Researchers have proposed that the systems that regulate sleep may have evolved first in ocean organisms as a way to regulate when to rise to the surface in search of food. Today, sleep plays a vital role in animal life. It is observed in virtually all animals, from invertebrates like jellyfish and worms, to mammals, birds, and reptiles.

However, even lower life forms rest in a way that could be interpreted as "sleep." Simple, single-celled organisms like bacteria do not sleep as we understand it, but they have periods of reduced activity that might be considered analogous to sleep. The simplest animals we know of that sleep are invertebrates like the nematode C. elegans (a type of worm), which exhibit a sleep-like state.

It turns out some people are genetically able to cope with less sleep
Most living things on Earth actually sleep in some form or another.

Sleep may even be a game-changer for artificial creations like neural networks. But, we digress.

It appears that sleep has grown more complex in higher organisms, which have evolved diverse stages and types of sleep. For instance, mammals, birds, and some reptiles and fish undergo REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, which is linked to dreaming and seems to contribute to learning and memory processes.

Given how long ago the process of sleep evolved, it is not surprising that getting enough sleep is extremely important for our overall well-being.

The bodies of most multicellular organisms are very effective at repairing muscles, organs, and cells when they sleep. Additionally, sleep seems to boost immune systems by releasing chemicals that fight off infections.

For animals with larger brains, like humans, sleep also plays a vital role in memory consolidation, as it assists our brains in processing and retaining new memories from the day.

Sleep also helps support cognitive functions such as creativity, problem-solving, and attention. Conversely, when we don't get enough sleep, it can hurt our ability to perform these tasks. In addition to cognitive benefits, sleep is essential for emotional well-being.

Sleep is especially vital for children and teenagers as it is a crucial aspect of growth and development. During sleep the body produces hormones that promote grow and help to build muscle, fight illnesses, and repair damage to the cells and tissues. Additionally, sleep plays a crucial role in appetite regulation, ensuring a healthy balance of hunger-related hormones.

What happens if you don't get enough sleep?

In short, nothing good. Lack of sufficient sleep can adversely affect your overall health, including physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Sleep deprivation may lead to consequences such as:

  • Impaired cognitive function: Sleep deprivation can affect attention, concentration, problem-solving, and decision-making abilities. It can also slow your reaction time and increase the risk of accidents.
  • Memory problems: Sleep is crucial for memory consolidation. When you don't get enough sleep, your ability to form and retain new memories can be compromised.
  • Mood changes: Lack of sleep can lead to irritability, mood swings, and increased emotional sensitivity. It can also exacerbate symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  • Weakened immune system: Sleep is essential for maintaining a healthy immune system. Sleep deprivation can make you more susceptible to infections and slow your recovery time when you're sick.
It turns out some people are genetically able to cope with less sleep
Do you get enough sleep?
  • Weight gain: Insufficient sleep can disrupt the balance of hormones that regulate appetite, leading to increased hunger and a higher risk of weight gain and obesity.
  • Increased risk of chronic health issues: Chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to an increased risk of health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke.
  • Reduced quality of life: Persistent lack of sleep can negatively impact your overall quality of life, affecting your relationships, work performance, and general well-being.

As we said, nothing good. But, believe it or not, some rare individuals can perform quite well with considerably less sleep than the rest of the population.

Why can some people sleep less?

We hope it is clear by now that sleep is vital for any living creature, especially you. However, some rare individuals appear to have a special genetic condition enabling them to function quite well with much less sleep than most others.

The secret to this appears to be written in their genetic code. For example, UC San Francisco scientists managed to identify a certain set of genes that appear to promote, as they call it, "naturally short sleep." They define this as nightly sleep episodes that last between four and six hours every night for life.

Yet, the researchers found that despite this relatively short period of sleep, which would cause chronic problems for other people, such individuals wake up feeling just as rested after as little as four hours of sleep as you would with a full night's rest.

According to the prevailing thought, factors that interfere with sleep make it challenging for researchers to differentiate between individuals who naturally sleep less than six hours and those who rely on artificial stimulants to do so. However, that all changed in 2009 when Ying-Hui Fu, PhD, professor of neurology and a member of the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, discovered that certain individuals who can cope with less sleep had a strange mutation in a gene called DEC2.

When conducting her research, Dr. Fu found that the control group, who lacked the mutation, tended to average around 8.06 hours at night, while the participants with the DEC2-mutation averaged much less, at about 6.25 hours. The researchers then conducted some experiments on lab-grown cells in mice.

They genetically engineered a similar mutation in the ADRB1 gene (the mouse equivalent of DEC2) to see what would happen. True to form, mice with the mutation slept less, rose more easily, and tended to stay awake longer. What's more, the research suggests that these natural "short sleepers" may derive other benefits from this quirk of their biology. Short sleepers tend to be more optimistic, energetic, and efficient at multitasking.

But DEC2 might not be the only gene mutation needed for this "superpower." Another team of researchers found a similar phenomenon in individuals with mutations in yet another gene called BHLHE41.

By studying two twins, one with the mutation and one without, they found that the twin with the gene mutation slept about one hour less on average than the other twin. During a 38-hour period without sleep, the twin with the mutation showed fewer mental errors compared to his twin brother. Moreover, he needed less recovery sleep after experiencing sleep deprivation.

It has also been shown that people with this mutation also have a higher pain threshold and do not experience jet lag. In fact, some studies even suggest that they may live longer. While the exact reasons for these benefits are still unknown, the work of researchers like Fu is an important step toward understanding the link between good sleep and overall health.

And that is your lot for today.

While these naturally short sleepers are certainly interesting, they should not be considered something to aspire to. If you lack the gene, it is not a good idea to compromise your health by consistently getting only a few hours of sleep a night. You should always make the time to get enough shut-eye if at all possible.

Not doing so could be gradually building up very serious health issues later on down the line!

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