It can be a little unsettling when you realize that we spend a solid third of our lives unconscious. So, how much sleep do we need and do we truly need to sleep for a third of our time on this planet? Well, that’s what we’ve been told: to sleep eight hours for optimal energy levels, stress management, immunity, and recovery from exercise.
The exceptions are just that.
But then, I’m sure you’ve heard from few very vocal outliers on that subject. Those super-humans claiming they barely need to sleep at all—and that you should follow suit. After all, who wouldn’t want to be a super-human? Richard Branson never breaks six hours per night. Martha Stewart and Bill Clinton usually clock four (and Margaret Thatcher did the same). Nikola Tesla, a brilliant man, even claimed to get by on two hours while Donald Trump sleeps three to four hours and calls it a matter of will. In his words: “How does somebody that’s sleeping twelve and fourteen hours a day compete with someone that’s sleeping three or four?”
But sleep science has a different verdict. Study after study has confirmed that to be at your best (concentration or athletic performance) you should get at least seven hours of sleep. Ideally nine, particularly if you engage in a lot of physical activity. Not meeting that threshold has measurable negative effects. Your reflexes diminish, your focus wanes and your self-control is sapped. Your susceptibility to weight gain skyrockets, and you’re even more likely to contract diabetes. There will always be outliers like Thatcher and Branson. But the pendulum swings the other way, too. Albert Einstein and LeBron James swore by at least ten hours per night.
Caffeine, genius or the luck of the draw?
Many scientists are positive that the success of the sleep deprived is one hundred percent fueled by ungodly amounts of caffeine. But caffeine IV drips aside, let’s not discount that the passion for their work could also play a factor. It may be possible that an extremely inspired person can achieve so much with just a few hours of shuteye. A more likely explanation could be that the outliers are simply genetic anomalies. In 2014, scientists at the Centre for Applied Genomics in Philadelphia discovered that those of us who carry the gene variant known as “p.Tyr362His” could function on under five hours of sleep per night. Folks with the gene were also far better at mental tasks after 38 hours of sleep deprivation. The researchers nicknamed it “The Thatcher Gene.”
But sadly for some, research has indicated that only about 1-3% of people are able to survive on so little sleep without consequences. The health implications for that little sleep are many and serious, and stories of sleep-deprivation causing disasters is well-founded. The truth is – sleep resets your body and cleanses the brain. It's the best way to prepare yourself for whatever life throws at you. So block some quality time for snoozing and let’s not think dreams are a waste. As Carl Sandburg said: “Nothing happens unless first we dream.”
For a deeper dive on sleep, see what UCLA neurobiologist Dr. Ben Smarr, a member of our advisory board, has to say here.