What Is Short Sleeper Syndrome?
Short sleeper syndrome (SSS) is a sleep disorder characterized by
sleeping for fewer than six hours each night. Most adults need seven or more
hours of sleep each night to feel rested in the morning. Those with SSS,
however, can function normally throughout the day despite little sleep. They
don’t need to take naps or sleep more than normal to recover from lack of
Minimal sleep requirement occurs naturally for people with SSS. They
don’t purposefully restrict or avoid sleep. In fact, their short sleep pattern
is the same on most nights, including weekends and holidays. The pattern of
short sleep usually begins in childhood or adolescence and continues into
adulthood. Researchers believe it may develop due to a gene mutation. The
mutation enables people to function well on fewer than six hours of sleep each
While people with SSS don’t require much sleep, they may struggle to
coordinate their unusual sleep schedule with their work and social schedules.
In these cases, treatment may be required. Treatment for SSS usually focuses on
developing a new sleeping and waking schedule. Many people with SSS can make
these adjustments and adapt to healthier sleeping habits.
Symptoms of Short Sleeper Syndrome
People with SSS sleep fewer than six hours each night and are still
able to function well throughout the day. They can perform well at work or
school despite their short sleep duration. Additionally, they don’t feel the
need to take naps or sleep more on the weekends.
You may have another type of sleep disorder if you:
- feel fatigued throughout the day
- require at least one nap per day
- have trouble falling asleep at night
- have difficulty staying asleep at night
Schedule an appointment with your doctor if you’re experiencing any of
the above symptoms multiple times per week.
Causes of Short Sleeper Syndrome
New scientific evidence suggests that SSS may be caused by a gene
mutation. A recent study
found that a small percentage of people have a short sleep gene. This gene
allows them to think and function normally with less sleep than others. The
study compared identical twins, one who carried the short sleep gene mutation
and one who lacked this mutation. The twins performed cognitive tasks after the
same amount of sleep the night before. Those who carried the short sleep
mutation outperformed their identical twin siblings who lacked the mutation.
Despite this promising breakthrough, research on SSS is still ongoing.
Aside from a possible gene mutation, other potential causes of SSS include:
- occupational changes, such as getting a new job
or changing from a day to night shift
- psychological stress, such as the death of a loved
SSS may also be associated with diet and lifestyle choices. Any of the
following can contribute to the development of SSS:
- caffeine, which can decrease sleep time
- alcohol, which may make it difficult to sleep
- illicit drugs, especially stimulants such as
cocaine and amphetamines, which might cause hallucinations and distort sleep
Diagnosing Short Sleeper Syndrome
To make an accurate diagnosis, your doctor will likely want to discuss
your sleep habits. Your doctor may also give you a special questionnaire called
the Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire. This assessment tool contains 19
questions that help determine when you typically perform your day-to-day
activities. Similarly, the Munich Chronotype Questionnaire may be used to
classify you as a “morning” person or “night” person. Both questionnaires will help
your doctor evaluate your condition and determine the best course of treatment.
Your doctor might also ask you to keep a sleep log in which you record:
- the total time spent asleep and awake
- the number of times you wake up each night
If your doctor suspects you have another type of sleep disorder, they
may perform certain laboratory tests, including:
This test is performed in a special lab while you are fully asleep.
Your doctor will observe you while you sleep, record data about your sleep
patterns, and check for signs of a sleep disorder. To help make a diagnosis,
your doctor will measure your brain waves, oxygen levels, and heart and
An actigraphy is a portable
device that you can wear on your wrist or ankle. It measures the time of
day and level of your activities. This can help determine whether your internal
clock isn’t working properly. This test typically lasts one week.
Treatment for Short Sleeper Syndrome
Treatment for SSS focuses on helping you regulate your sleeping and
waking schedule. The human body is programmed to sleep when it’s dark and to wake
when it becomes light. However, if you have SSS, you are likely not sleeping
during these “natural” hours. Treatment can help by using light and darkness to
restore your body’s natural rhythm.
Light therapy consists of using artificial light to regulate sleep. To undergo
light therapy, you may have to buy a light box. This is a special machine that produces
full-spectrum light that resembles sunlight. Light therapy can be particularly
helpful for those who need to synchronize their sleeping and waking habits with
their work schedule. For example, if you work a night shift, the light box can
help your body experience the night as “day.” This will help you sleep later
Chronotherapy is a more drastic treatment for SSS. This cognitive
behavioral technique requires you to follow a strict sleeping and waking
schedule. The goal is to retrain your brain. You follow the schedule for one
month before introducing minor changes. No naps are allowed. You will use
successive three-hour delays in your bedtime for six days until you reach the proper
amount of sleep. A sample chronotherapy schedule is below.
|Wednesday||Stay up all night|
|Thursday||Sleep 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.|
|Friday||Sleep 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.|
|Saturday||Sleep noon to 8 p.m.|
|Sunday||Sleep 3 p.m. to midnight|
|Monday||Sleep 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.|
|Tuesday (and onwards)||Sleep 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.|
Outlook for People with Short Sleeper Syndrome
Your outlook depends on how well you adhere to treatment and lifestyle
changes. Light therapy and resetting your sleep schedule can be long-term
solutions. However, you have to stick with these treatments for them to be