It was a fact widely known that Margaret Thatcher could get by on only four hours’ sleep a night.
And just like the former British prime minister, some high-profile business leaders also claim to do their best work on only the briefest of shut-eye. Jack Dorsey, who is CEO of both Twitter and the payments company Square, said recently: “I don’t sleep much, but it’s enough.”
So why is it that some people can be productive and energetic despite getting less sleep than everyone else?
A recent report published by the University of California, San Francisco says that it’s all down to our genes.
The study looked at a group of people who are able to survive – and even thrive – on barely any sleep, and found that members of this group had something in common: a mutation in a gene called DEC2.
People with this gene mutation “were born to need less sleep”, Dr Ying-Hui Fu, neuroscience professor and author of the study, told CBS San Francisco. “They feel energetic and awake even after only a few hours’ sleep.” It means they can often hold down more than one job and still maintain good mental health, she explained.
She described them as “efficient sleepers”, because “whatever our brain needs to do in our eight hours for you and me, it can be done in four hours in these people.”
One of the participants in the study described her ability to sleep as a gift. “My day is longer than most people’s; I can get more things done,” she said.
The gene mutation is rare: less than 1% of us are estimated to have it.
The findings could lead to a drug being developed that mimics the mutated gene. As the professor explains: “Some day that’s a real possibility. If we can understand what makes these people sleep more efficiently, we can come up with some idea of how to safely regulate our sleep effect through drug development.”
But that would be at least 10-15 years away, she added.
Why most of us need more sleep
In a recent study, less than a fifth of young people around the world reported getting enough sleep, a deficiency that can be dangerous for the health and also affect academic achievement and productivity.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults should aim for seven or more hours a night.