Short Sleeper Syndrome: Causes, Symptoms & Diagnosis
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Short Sleeper Syndrome

What Is Short Sleeper Syndrome?

Short sleeper syndrome (SSS) is a sleep disorder characterized by sleeping for fewer than six hours each night. Most adults need seven or more hours of sleep each night to feel rested in the morning. Those with SSS, however, can function normally throughout the day despite little sleep. They don’t need to take naps or sleep more than normal to recover from lack of sleep.

Minimal sleep requirement occurs naturally for people with SSS. They don’t purposefully restrict or avoid sleep. In fact, their short sleep pattern is the same on most nights, including weekends and holidays. The pattern of short sleep usually begins in childhood or adolescence and continues into adulthood. Researchers believe it may develop due to a gene mutation. The mutation enables people to function well on fewer than six hours of sleep each night.

While people with SSS don’t require much sleep, they may struggle to coordinate their unusual sleep schedule with their work and social schedules. In these cases, treatment may be required. Treatment for SSS usually focuses on developing a new sleeping and waking schedule. Many people with SSS can make these adjustments and adapt to healthier sleeping habits.

Symptoms of Short Sleeper Syndrome

Symptoms

People with SSS sleep fewer than six hours each night and are still able to function well throughout the day. They can perform well at work or school despite their short sleep duration. Additionally, they don’t feel the need to take naps or sleep more on the weekends.

You may have another type of sleep disorder if you:

  • feel fatigued throughout the day
  • require at least one nap per day
  • have trouble falling asleep at night
  • have difficulty staying asleep at night

Schedule an appointment with your doctor if you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms multiple times per week.

Causes of Short Sleeper Syndrome

Causes

New scientific evidence suggests that SSS may be caused by a gene mutation. A recent study found that a small percentage of people have a short sleep gene. This gene allows them to think and function normally with less sleep than others. The study compared identical twins, one who carried the short sleep gene mutation and one who lacked this mutation. The twins performed cognitive tasks after the same amount of sleep the night before. Those who carried the short sleep mutation outperformed their identical twin siblings who lacked the mutation.

Despite this promising breakthrough, research on SSS is still ongoing. Aside from a possible gene mutation, other potential causes of SSS include:

  • occupational changes, such as getting a new job or changing from a day to night shift
  • psychological stress, such as the death of a loved one

SSS may also be associated with diet and lifestyle choices. Any of the following can contribute to the development of SSS:

  • caffeine, which can decrease sleep time
  • alcohol, which may make it difficult to sleep soundly
  • illicit drugs, especially stimulants such as cocaine and amphetamines, which might cause hallucinations and distort sleep time

Diagnosing Short Sleeper Syndrome

Diagnosis

To make an accurate diagnosis, your doctor will likely want to discuss your sleep habits. Your doctor may also give you a special questionnaire called the Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire. This assessment tool contains 19 questions that help determine when you typically perform your day-to-day activities. Similarly, the Munich Chronotype Questionnaire may be used to classify you as a “morning” person or “night” person. Both questionnaires will help your doctor evaluate your condition and determine the best course of treatment.

Your doctor might also ask you to keep a sleep log in which you record:

  • the total time spent asleep and awake
  • the number of times you wake up each night

If your doctor suspects you have another type of sleep disorder, they may perform certain laboratory tests, including:

Polysomnography

This test is performed in a special lab while you are fully asleep. Your doctor will observe you while you sleep, record data about your sleep patterns, and check for signs of a sleep disorder. To help make a diagnosis, your doctor will measure your brain waves, oxygen levels, and heart and breathing rates.

Actigraphy

An actigraphy is a portable device that you can wear on your wrist or ankle. It measures the time of day and level of your activities. This can help determine whether your internal clock isn’t working properly. This test typically lasts one week.

Treatment for Short Sleeper Syndrome

Treatment

Treatment for SSS focuses on helping you regulate your sleeping and waking schedule. The human body is programmed to sleep when it’s dark and to wake when it becomes light. However, if you have SSS, you are likely not sleeping during these “natural” hours. Treatment can help by using light and darkness to restore your body’s natural rhythm.

Light Therapy

Light therapy consists of using artificial light to regulate sleep. To undergo light therapy, you may have to buy a light box. This is a special machine that produces full-spectrum light that resembles sunlight. Light therapy can be particularly helpful for those who need to synchronize their sleeping and waking habits with their work schedule. For example, if you work a night shift, the light box can help your body experience the night as “day.” This will help you sleep later on.

Chronotherapy

Chronotherapy is a more drastic treatment for SSS. This cognitive behavioral technique requires you to follow a strict sleeping and waking schedule. The goal is to retrain your brain. You follow the schedule for one month before introducing minor changes. No naps are allowed. You will use successive three-hour delays in your bedtime for six days until you reach the proper amount of sleep. A sample chronotherapy schedule is below.

DayBedtime Schedule
WednesdayStay up all night
ThursdaySleep 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.
FridaySleep 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
SaturdaySleep noon to 8 p.m.
SundaySleep 3 p.m. to midnight
MondaySleep 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Tuesday (and onwards)Sleep 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.

Outlook for People with Short Sleeper Syndrome

Outlook

Your outlook depends on how well you adhere to treatment and lifestyle changes. Light therapy and resetting your sleep schedule can be long-term solutions. However, you have to stick with these treatments for them to be effective.

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