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Do You Really Need 7 to 8 Hours of Sleep? The Answer from Genetic Research

by Marianne Navada

Experts recommend 7-8 hours of sleep for adults, but developments in genetic research show that those with certain genetic mutations, might not fit this recommendation. 

In 2017, the sleep industry generated $69.5 billion and is projected to past $101 billion in 2023. We have apps to track our sleep, blankets, pills and more to help us get the sleep we think we need. But are we not getting enough sleep or are we forcing ourselves to sleep more than we need? 

Our Complex Relationship with Sleep

Medical experts recommend we get enough sleep, and yet we glorify successful serial entrepreneurs who run on less than 7 hours of sleep, such as Elon Musk (6 hours) and Richard Branson (5-6 hours). We also have wellness advocates who believe that sleep makes us more productive and successful, but we consume coffee and caffeinated drinks to get us through the day. 

And it’s not just the amount of sleep we get. It’s when we get it. Whoever gets up first at the crack of dawn and goes for a jog gets it done. At least that’s the Hollywood story we’re used to seeing. 

Short Sleepers

There are consequences to having a recommended sleep time for people who are short sleepers, those who need fewer hours of sleep than average. In a Time magazine article, a short sleeper has a 4-hour sleep routine that made her feel “good”. But in an effort to “match the slumber schedules of the rest of the world” she resorted to “drugs (melatonin), alcohol, and marijuana edibles”. The supplements made her sleep more, but didn’t really make her feel better. 

Then there are insomnia and depression diagnoses for people who think they are not getting enough sleep. But as we know more about how our genes behave, what it means to have “enough sleep”, requires personalization.

The Lessons

The right amount of sleep is important for our overall health, but self-assessment and personalized health diagnosis can help us figure out how we can best take research and apply it to our own bodies. 

Listen to expert recommendations, but also take into account personalized health. If you’re not getting the recommended 7-8 hour of sleep but feel good, talk to a medical expert before taking supplements or feel anxious over your sleep pattern. Sleep is not always about quantity, but quality. 

Asses the role of caffeine, alarm clocks, naps, device-usage and other habits in disrupting your natural sleep cycle. There are ways to improve sleep quality and it starts with reflecting on our habits that compromise sleep. 

 Learning about a genetic mutation that makes other people require less sleep doesn’t mean we ignore recommendations. But this is an opportunity to learn from it.

“Natural short sleepers experience better sleep quality and sleep efficiency,” 

“By studying them (short sleepers), we hope to learn what makes for a good night’s sleep, so that all of us can be better sleepers leading happier, healthier lives”. 

Ying-Hui Fu PhD | Professor of Neurology at UCSF | She led the research that resulted to the discovery of short sleep genes. 

Don’t Feel Guilty If You Need More than 8 Hours of Sleep

I’ve come to realize that I need about 9 hours of sleep to feel good. And If I don’t get my 9, I’ll need a nap in the afternoon. When I was younger, I used to feel lazy needing more sleep, but reading the research and not thinking about what others think has allowed me to embrace what my body needs.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Dakota Johnson admits to needing 10 hours of sleep.

I’m not functional if I get less than 10. I can easily go 14 hours.

Sleep is my number one priority in life.

Dakota Johnson | Dakota Johnson Likes to Sleep for 14 Hours a Night

The More You Know

Natural short sleep:  is a “lifelong, nightly sleep that lasts just four to six hours yet leaves individuals feeling fully rested.” 

So far, geneticists have discovered two genes associated with short sleep: DEC2 and ADRB1.

…people who had inherited a particular mutation in a gene called DEC2 averaged only 6.25 hours of sleep per night; study participants lacking the mutation averaged 8.06 hours. 

Ying-Hui Fu PhD | Professor of Neurology at UCSF

This article was originally published n September 12, 2020.

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