Insomnia and sleep deprivation, is there a way to thrive on minimal sleep?

Ah bedtime, time to cozy up under the warmth of the covers and fall asleep until the dreaded alarm rings in the morning. That is, unless you are one of the millions of people who suffer from some form of insomnia or sleep deprivation, destined to toss and turn the night away. Insomnia is the inability to fall asleep or to stay asleep. Often times you watch the minutes count down on the clock getting frustrated that you cannot fall asleep. Insomnia can lead to lethargy, fatigue, low energy, mood swings, difficulty concentrating or difficulty performing daily tasks. There are many things that can cause someone to suffer from chronic or acute insomnia including: seasonal allergies, acid reflux, hyperthyroidism, stress, depression, anxiety, lack of exercise, too much caffeine, and a host of other things. While most people with insomnia or sleep deprivation suffer from the condition, scientists have now discovered a group of people with a gene mutation that actually allows them to sleep less without feeling most of the negative effects associated with a lack of sleep.

In the study, published in the journal Sleep by Dr. Pellegrino and associates, the researchers identified a gene variant in one twin from a twin pair that allowed them to resist the problems associated with sleep deprivation. The variant was in a gene called BHLHE41 (basic helix-loop helix family member e41, in case you were wondering). This same gene had a different variant identified in it (by a different study published by Dr. He) that also conferred a resistance to sleep deprivation. The people with these mutations in BHLHE41 were able to operate normally on less sleep than the people without the mutation. In the first study by Dr. Pellegrino, a person with that particular mutation was able to sleep for just over 4 hours and feel rested while someone without the mutation slept on average 7 hours in order to feel well rested. In the second study by Dr. He, subjects with the mutation (a different one than the first one) were able to sleep for 6.25 hours compared to the people without the mutation who slept for over 8 hours. In case you were wondering, the average number of hours of sleep for the average person is 7.4 hours. In addition to needing less sleep to feel rested, people with these mutations also were able to better withstand the effects of sleep deprivation (measured by their scores in tests following periods of sleeping for only 4 hours). Interestingly, when they mutated the BHLHE41 gene in mice the same way, the mice responded with a need for less sleep and more vigilance following periods of short sleep.

So what does this gene do? BHLHE41 is what is known as a transcription factor, or a protein that turns on the expression of other genes in your DNA. These genes in turn make proteins and these new proteins are known to be involved in the regulation of the body’s molecular clock. This BHLHE41 is one of the molecules that are thought to be part of our internal circadian clock and may work in concert with other proteins to regulate when and how our body falls asleep or wakes up.

While not everyone who suffers from insomnia will have this mutation (or ones like it) the research might go on to help identify ways to treat people with insomnia without resorting to sleeping pills (which can be known to cause dependency problems as well as sleep that is not rejuvenating). There is currently no test to determine if you are one of the people who have this rare mutation allowing you to operate on less sleep, but if you feel like you suffer from insomnia there is help. Sleep is important for resting you body after a long days work. Everyone, even the short sleepers, should be able to have a restful, undisturbed sleep. Without it, your health can suffer. Plus who doesn’t love a good night’s sleep.


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