Short sleeper syndrome (SSS) is a sleep condition 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 less sleep. They don’t need to take naps or sleep more than normal to recover from lack of sleep. These individuals are different from those short sleepers who choose to limit their 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. This mutation may be what enables people to function well on fewer than six hours of sleep each night.
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.
While SSS isn’t considered disordered sleep, you may have a sleep problem 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
- wake up frequently throughout the night
Schedule an appointment with your doctor if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms multiple times per week.
Scientific evidence suggests that SSS may be associated with a gene mutation.
A 2014 study at the University of Pittsburgh found that a small percentage of people have a short sleep gene. 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. The twin who carried the short sleep mutation outperformed their identical twin sibling who lacked the mutation.
This change in the genes allows those with the mutation to think and function normally with less sleep than others. This alteration was also found in a mother and daughter who routinely slept an average of 6.25 hours nightly, compared to their family members who slept around 8 hours regularly.
When this same gene mutation was engineered into both mice and fruit flies, both species naturally slept less than their counterparts without the gene change. However, researchers note that understanding the complexity of human sleep isn’t explained by a single gene. Scientists believe multiple genes are involved.
To make an accurate diagnosis, your doctor will likely want to discuss your sleep habits. Your doctor may also give you a 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. These questionnaires can help your doctor evaluate your condition.
Your doctor might also ask you to keep a sleep diary in which you record:
- the total time spent asleep and awake
- the number of times you wake up each night
- symptoms during the day such as sleepiness or frequency of naps
Those with “natural” SSS don’t require further testing or treatment, as they have no actual disorder. This is different from those individuals who purposefully deny themselves sleep. If your doctor suspects you have an unhealthy sleep pattern, they may perform certain laboratory tests, including any or all of the following:
Polysomnography (sleep study)
A polysomnography, or sleep study, is performed in a special lab while you’re 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.
An actigraph 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 aspects of sleep like total sleep time and periods of wakefulness. This test typically lasts one week. The results are often used together with the information gathered from a person’s sleep diary.
Treatment for sleep problems often focuses on ways to help 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 disordered sleep, you aren’t likely to be sleeping during these “natural” hours. Treatment can help by using light and darkness to restore your body’s natural rhythm.
Sleep hygiene is a combination of tools used to restore restful sleep. Starting these habits can be a good way to maintain healthy sleep. It’s often a useful place to start for people who have trouble falling asleep or staying sleep. Here are some of the recommendations from the National Sleep Foundation:
- Limit naps to 30 minutes or less.
- Don’t use stimulants like caffeine and nicotine before bed.
- Avoid alcohol before bed. Although it can help some people fall asleep, it often leads to disrupted sleep once the alcohol is processed by the body.
- Regular daily exercise (30 minutes a day for five days a week) can improve sleep quality.
- Avoid eating before bed, especially any foods known to cause you indigestion.
- Expose yourself to natural light daily, either through sunshine or light therapy.
- Develop a nighttime routine that includes relaxation and a consistent bedtime.
- Ensure a comfortable sleep environment: A cool bedroom between 60˚F to 67˚F (15.55˚C to 19.44˚C), no additional light from screens, windows, or lamps, and earplugs or eye masks to reduce distractions from sound or light.
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.
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’ll use successive three-hour delays in your bedtime for six days until you reach the proper amount of sleep. Here’s a sample chronotherapy schedule:
|Wednesday||Stay up all night|
|Thursday||Sleep 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.|
|Friday||Sleep 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.|
|Saturday||Sleep noon to 8 p.m.|
|Sunday||Sleep 3 p.m. to midnight|
|Monday||Sleep 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.|
|Tuesday (and onward)||Sleep 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.|
For people with SSS, no specific treatment is needed.
If you have a sleep disorder, success in treatment depends on the type of disordered sleep you have.
It’s important that you adhere to any treatment and lifestyle changes that your doctor recommends. Sleep hygiene, light therapy, and resetting your sleep schedule can be long-term solutions. However, it’s important to stick these routines in order to ensure the best outcome.