Can You Thrive with Only Five Hours of Sleep a Night?

Author: | Posted in Science 60 Comments

thrive-fiveWe’ve all met them. The weirdos who get 5 hours a sleep a night. Maybe Four hours. And they love it. They say they wake up refreshed and that’s all their body needs.

Let’s call them mini-sleepers.

I knew a professor once who claimed to get, and want, no more than five hours of sleep a night. (The hours not spent sleeping he used to make his own clothes, but the less said about that the better.)

Are these people right? Is there a set time that all people need, or is it totally subjective?

The fact is that these people are wrong – and chronically tired. They just don’t know it.

Sleep Attitudes

Most of us don’t want to get less sleep. We want more. But life gets in the way, and we drop a few hours here and a few hours there. But our mini-sleepers choose to get less than the ideal 7.5 to 9 hours of sleep. Why is this?

There’s a certain pride that mini-sleepers derive from their extra hours of wakefulness. The implication is that they are stronger, more durable, and their engine just runs a little stronger than everyone else. “Sleep more?” they say, “But that’s a waste of time!”

But this assumes that sleep is something that it is not. Sleep is not an admission of weakness – it’s an essential natural process.

Think of it like hunger. If our mini-sleepers were instead mini-eaters, they might only eat an apple and a bowl of oatmeal a day. This does not make them tougher than those that eat full meals. This would never be something to brag about.

Our body needs sleep, and intentionally depriving it of adequate hours starves your body of all the good that sleep provides.

But let’s not make too many assumptions. Some mini-sleepers really do believe they need less. It’s not a point of pride for them, it’s a fact. Well, not quite.

Keeping Track

People are notoriously bad at self-reporting. We think we eat more (or less) than we do. A minute feels like an our when we’re bored, but an hour will fly by when we have fun. And the nighttime hours slip by unnoticed.

Mini-sleepers may be getting more sleep than they think.

Remember too that great tradition – the weekend sleep in. Mini-sleepers may stay in bed for hours more on these days, because their bodies demand it. The week takes it out of them, and the weekend replenishes it. However, weekend sleep-ins do not fully make up for week day sleep debt. It helps, but nothing is as good as regular, adequate sleep every night.

How tired are we really?

What may seem like a simple question is actually hard for us to answers. Short-term, people will feel a bad night or two (or three). Bleary-eyed, they’ll complain of irritability, depression, fuzzy-headedness, and the usual side-effects of sleep deprivation.

But long-term, things start to change.

Studies have shown that when people limit their sleep for weeks at a time, they eventually stop feeling these effects. They report feeling refreshed, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

“Aha,” say the mini-sleepers, “they got all the sleep they needed then.”

The problem is, even though people feel rested, objective measurements show that they are tired. Their performance on memory tasks is reduced significantly. They just don’t know it.

What happens with long-term sleep deprivation is that the immediate symptoms (tiredness) seem to stop, but the effect on their brains continues just the same. When these people are restored to full night sleep, they gradually return to normal.

And that’s the real trick of sleep deprivation. You feel it for a day or two, but eventually you stop feeling it entirely. But you’re not performing at your best, no matter how good you may feel.

Except…

There’s one exception to all this – genetic mini-sleepers. There do exist some individuals with a gene that gives them the ability to sleep very few hours per night with no ill effects. Numbering only a tiny percent of the population, these have been dubbed the “sleepless elite.”

But don’t be too quick to self-diagnose if you are a mini-sleeper. Guess wrong, and you’ll be walking around chronically sleep deprived and potentially never know it.


Image credit: Early One Morning by amirjina, on Flickr

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