Don’t Need Much Sleep? Science Says You’re Wrong

Get some shuteye whether you think you need it or not, warns a new study. (Photo: Chris Craymer/Trunk Archive)

If you’re one of those people who believes she can survive on very little sleep, think again.

According to research published in the journal Brain and Behavior, brain patterns have been identified in “habitual short sleepers,” which found that while some of these people may report not experiencing daytime fatigue or dysfunction, they’re probably more tired than they realize.

It’s been long understood that beauty sleep is imperative for physical and mental health, since it can affect energy levels, impairment in reasoning, and cognitive performance; it can also contribute to obesity, coronary disease, and all-cause mortality risk.

In order to understand how the inner connections work in the brain (also referred to as the “connectome”), investigators from University of Utah analyzed brain connectivity shown on MRI scans in nearly 900 patients. The researchers divided their subjects into three groups — those who reportedly slept a “normal” amount of hours over the previous month, those who slept six hours or less each night yet felt drained, and those who slept six hours or less each night and felt alert.

Related: I Had a ‘Sleep Doctor’ Tell Me How to Structure My Entire Day —Here’s My Simple New Morning Routine

Interestingly enough, some of the people drifted off during the MRI scan—even those who reportedly claimed they never experienced daytime drowsiness.

Perhaps their wakeup brain systems are perpetually in overdrive, which “leaves open the possibility that, in a boring MRI scanner, they have nothing to do to keep them awake and thus fall asleep,” said study co-author Christopher Jones, MD, in a press release

When the health professionals examined the differences between the brain regions, they uncovered that short sleepers who claim that they have no issue staying wide awake during the day showed increased connectivity between the sensory cortices, amygdala, and hippocampus.

“Prior research suggests that this can occur in phasic REM states and may function, in part, to facilitate memory consolidation,” Paula G. Williams, PhD, study co-author and psychology professor, tells Yahoo Beauty. “So if some short sleepers have rapid drops in sleep stages — both during night sleep and perhaps in daytime ‘microsleeps’ — this might contribute to their perception of daytime alertness.” 

She further explains that while “it is still a question as to whether they really don’t need more sleep, we do think this may affect how they feel with shorter sleep,” continues Williams.

As a result, she and her colleagues plan on continuing their research, probing if these efficient sleepers actually feel as alert as they claim.

Related: A 2-Week Sleep Cleanse: Why I Turned My Bed Into a Shrine and You Should Too 

“What we know from prior research is that natural short sleepers — those who routinely sleep less than six hours regardless of their schedule (work week vs. weekend vs. vacation) — are high in behavioral activation and reward drive, often with hypomanic characteristics, for example, high activity, distractibility, inflated self-esteem or grandiosity, and engaging in pleasurable, but potentially risky behavior,” says Williams. “We believe they are likely engaging in highly stimulating activities that serve to override the physiological need to sleep.”

However, when these individuals are subjected to a less-stimulating environment (like the MRI scan), their ability to stay awake may quickly fade.

“Given all the characteristics just described, they may not be able to accurately judge their functioning, [which is] why in our future research, we will do objective cognitive testing, particularly attentional control (such as ADHD testing), as well as driving simulator testing under a variety of low-stimulation conditions.”

They also plan on examining the possible reasons why these adults appear to have high pain thresholds “since this is likely to figure in to their relative insensitivity to the adverse effects of sleep loss,” along with gathering the opinions from those in their everyday surroundings. “It is also important to get behavioral observations from other people who know them well,” concludes Williams.

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