Choose two of the three: good grades, a social life, or sleep. It’s no lie that college students are the demographic most overstretched in terms of academics, extracurricular activities, career-related internships, and social events. Often in this flurry of activity biological necessities, such as sleep, are sacrificed. 70% of college students sleep for less than eight hours a night, and 35% stay up until 3 A.M. at least once a week. Worse, 68% of students, already sleep deprived, have trouble falling asleep because of academic and emotional stress. As an eighteen-year-old about to enter college, I don’t see these statistics as mere numbers on a screen: I have experienced the consequences of staying up too late in an attempt to perfect my balancing act. Most teens, especially during their high school years, develop poor sleeping habits as a result of both their hormones and the constant juggling of schoolwork, extracurriculars, and a social life. Even though I understand the health implications of sleep deprivation and can easily explain the scientific principles of this phenomenon, society has taught me to subconsciously equate sleepiness with laziness. Growing up in America is enough to ingrain the association of laziness with unproductiveness. This perception can partially be attributed to the public’s knowledge of how little successful individuals sleep at night. After all, Benjamin Franklin, possibly the greatest American example of a Renaissance man, needed only four hours of shut-eye a night. As we stumble towards a world where rapidity and efficiency is increasingly valued, sleep begins to seem more and more slothful. We, as a culture, see the need for sleep as not only a burden but also an obstacle. We strive to be the Napoleons, da Vincis, and Edisons of the world by adopting alternative sleep cycles like the Uberman, which requires only six twenty-minute naps, or by simply pushing ourselves to the limit of sanity, sacrificing sleep.
Although the public, in an attempt to explain sleep patterns, has pointed its finger to certain character flaws and personality defects, recent research in this field has shattered this myth. According to the Centre for Applied Genomics, the need for sleep lies not in the effects of external environments but in the genetic make-up of the individual. In this study, 100 sets of twins (59 monozygotic, or identical, and 41 dizygotic, or fraternal) were subjected to the same conditions of sleep, with their differences in responses measured. Those with different responses were then tested to determine the specific genetic variant that caused changes in sleep patterns. They noticed that, in some twins, one both performed better at mental tasks and required less recovery sleep after intense sleep deprivation. For example, one twin had 40% fewer performance lapses during a sleepless period of 38 hours, needing 1.5 less hours of rest to recover. After testing, they attributed this difference to the gene variant p.Tyr362His in the BHLHE41 gene, nicknamed the Thatcher gene due to the former British Prime Minister’s reputed survival on four hours of sleep a night. This variation causes a decreased total sleeping time while maintaining the duration of the non-rapid eye movement (NREM) portion. NREM sleep enhances memorization, cognition, and physical recovery while also strengthening neural connections. This type of sleep seems, to researchers, essential to ensure normal biological function. Therefore, those with the p.Tyr362His variant not only require less sleep to survive, but also prove to be extremely productive. Because their internal clocks are tweaked to allow a quicker and more efficient entrance into NREM sleep, their bodies are satisfied with a mere five hours of sleep a night (or fewer in some cases).
This is not the first time that a variation in an individual’s DNA has been shown to cause different sleep patterns. A 2008 study linked a certain gene with narcolepsy, an uncommon disorder that causes excessive sleepiness and frequent and unexpected sleep attacks. In 2010, researchers found genetic differences that ultimately affect the sleepiness of the individual, despite the amount of sleep gotten per night. In 2011, Ludwig Maximalians University of Munich discovered that a particular variant of the ABCC9 gene influences sleep duration. In an age where scientists and researchers are slowly discovering the vast power of the genetic code, it comes as no surprise that sleep habits are influenced by DNA. “We have to accept the fact that sleep duration is genetically determined and not a sign of a defect,” says Mahowald, the medical director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center. But in our culture, isn’t the constant need for sleep considered a defect?
To our society, these genes are an asset, the key to success. If we break the shackles tying us to sleep and utilize the extra time, we may be able to unlock our human potential more rapidly. Imagine how much more college students could achieve if they had even one extra hour a day to devote to studying. Imagine how much more efficient and innovative our engineers would be without sleep dragging their minds down. Imagine how much more quickly change would take hold in a world with more time.
However, despite the immediate benefit of short-sleep mutations, researchers must first examine the unintended side effects. The ABCC9 gene has been found to control sleep patterns in fruit flies, indicating the evolutionary age of this gene. So, if a more efficient sleep pattern was truly beneficial, why hasn’t the human race evolved to require less sleep? Once scientists understand the complexity of sleep and all the genes controlling it, they may discover either the answer to this question, or that humans actually are evolving to require less sleep. Since the variant in the BHLHE41 gene exists in less than 1% of the population, it is difficult to measure its impact on long-term health, learning ability, and duration of life. In normal individuals, sleep deprivation is the source of most problems, physical and mental, including weight gain, depression, diabetes, decreased cognition, and, most importantly, cardiovascular issues. It may only be a coincidence that Margaret Thatcher died of a stroke or it may point to the detrimental effects of short-sleep. Either way, we must explore these effects before writing sleep off as a waste of time, only needed by the least intelligent.
Gann, Carrie. “Scientists ID ‘Morning Person’ Gene.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 28 Nov. 2011. Web. 05 Aug. 2014.
“Mutant Gene That Allows People to Need Less Sleep Identified, Scientists Say.” – RT News. Autonomous Nonprofit Organization “TV-Novosti”, 3 Aug. 2014. Web. 05 Aug. 2014.
Pesce, Nicole L. “Do History’s Greatest Figures Owe Their Success to Sleeping LESS?” NY Daily News. NYDailyNews.com, 26 June 2009. Web. 05 Aug. 2014.