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The short sleep gene

We’ve all known someone who’s bragged about being able to get by on very little sleep. But chances are, they’re not only exaggerating their capabilities, they’re lying to themselves.

Some people do have a certain genetic sequence that allows them to sleep as little as four hours a night without suffering any negative effects, but these people are few and far between.

In 2019, scientists identified a mutation in a few inherited genes — if you inherited one copy of that mutant gene (which means that one of your parents had this mutation and passed it on to you) then you are one of the humans who can function optimally after regularly sleeping four to six hours per night.

But it’s a rare superpower: Only 1-3% of Americans are suspected to actually have it (under four million people).

The rest of us are just underslept, and writing IOUs to our health that we’ll eventually be expected to pay.

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Self sabotage

Part of the reason why Americans are chronically underslept is that we trade sleep for personal time. In this economy, we can’t just “work less” and keep paying our bills, so more and more adults are engaging in something sleep scientists are calling “revenge bedtime procrastination”.

It’s tied to the idea that we know that staying up late is probably not the best call for our health and wellbeing, but we want to stay up late to watch our show, catch up on chores, or have that hour-long phone call with a friend who lives across the country.

While we are prolonging our bedtimes, we might also be telling ourselves, “I’ll just sleep in on the weekends.”

The idea that we can refill our sleep tanks when we have the time was debunked a few years ago, but that’s no longer the hard-and-fast rule.

The truth is, although we can make the trade-off every so often, once we adopt regular sleeplessness as a way of life, we build up a sleep debt and start accumulating negative health effects.

The harm to your health

There are serious consequences to not getting enough shuteye — consequences that can end up literally costing you.

Sleep deprivation is linked to myriad negative health effects. In fact, it’s linked to 7 of the 15 leading causes of death in the United States, including increased risk of heart disease, unhealthy weight gain, kidney disease, high blood pressure, and depression.

In older adults, tiredness has been shown to increase the likelihood of falls and broken bones, and in children, it can lead to lower test scores, lack of verbal creativity, and slower problem-solving.

There are significant cognitive impairments associated with not sleeping enough. Short-term, we will have “fuzzy brain”, or problems forming short-term memories, and difficulty maintaining focus. Long term, you run the risk of developing diseases like Alzheimer’s and experiencing rapid cognitive decline.

Tiredness can also lead to a higher risk of mistakes at work.

The Presidential Commission Report on the Challenger explosion, as well as official accounts of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the Exxon-Valdez oil spill affirm that all three of these catastrophes happened because the humans involved in them were underslept and dealing with shift work.

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Who pays the price?

A 2017 study published by the National Library of Medicine (NIH) connects all of the factors that encourage us to sleep less back to the “24/7” culture common among industrialized nations.

The study found that employees who get less than six hours of sleep a night report a 2.4% productivity loss on average, when compared to those who get the recommended seven to nine hours. Those who sleep between six and seven hours also report an average productivity loss of 1.5%.

Additionally, the study suggests that if there are 250 working days in a year, an employee who sleeps less than six hours will lose six working days per year to absenteeism, while an employee who sleeps between six and seven hours loses, on average, 3.7 days.

All of this sleep debt adds up.

In the last 10 years, not only did the CDC declare lack of sleep a public health issue, but Rand, a public policy research institute, showed that the U.S. economy loses an average $411 billion, or 1.23 million working days to lack of sleep.

That’s a figure big enough to give you nightmares.

Solution-based sleeping

Sleep may not be the most efficient process, but humans require quite a bit. Although individual needs may vary, the general medical consensus is that most humans need between seven and nine hours of good sleep (defined as two phases, one of rapid eye movement, or REM, and one of non-rapid eye movement).

But there are ways you can address your sleep issues if they’ve become something else that’s keeping you up at night.

The first is to clean up your “sleep hygiene”, or the habits you have around your bedtime.

Rand suggests maintaining a consistent schedule of when you go to bed and when you get up (even on weekends); turning off your electronic devices an hour before you go to sleep; and getting enough exercise.

If you need even more help regulating your sleeping patterns, watching your caffeine intake and trying to get a bit of exercise during the sunniest part of the day should help you do a “hard reset”.

If those suggestions aren’t working, try creating a relaxing bedtime routine (like having a warm shower or bath before bed), removing any items from your room that might distract you, and using your bedroom only when you need to rest.

Remember, getting better sleep is like cultivating any other habit — it will take time and practice. And if your initial lack of success frustrates you, here’s hoping you can eventually sleep it off.

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Bronwyn Petry Email Specialist

Bronwyn is currently part of the email content team for Moneywise. Before starting here, they freelanced for several years, focusing on B2B content and technical copy. Pre-pandemic, you could find them planning their next trip, but lately, if they're not at work, you can find them hanging out with their cat and dog.

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