Ask Dr. Dave: Can You Train Yourself to Need Less Sleep?

You may think you're being more efficient by purposely sleeping less, but the opposite is probably true.

sleep, fatigue, sleep debt, sleepiness

Even if you convince yourself that you don't need eight hours of sleep a night, sooner or later that sleep debt will demand payment. (Photo: Robert Manella/Getty Images)

After hours of Googling, I could not for the life of me find an evil villain or rich hero from a movie who only needs one hour of sleep—but I’m so sure I have seen at least six movies where this is the case!

I remember sitting in the movie theater thinking, “Wow! If only I could train my body to only need one hour of sleep a night, then I’d have 23 hours a day to become a rich hero or evil villain, depending on this movie I am currently watching!”

The best character I was able to come up with was Tyler Durden, Brad Pitt’s character from the movie Fight Club, who apparently only needed one hour of sleep a night—but I’m not sure where he fits on the evil villain/rich hero spectrum.

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This question is especially interesting to me as a resident physician, since sometimes we work a few months straight with an average of six hours of sleep a night. By the second week we get “used” to this lack of sleep and may even convince ourselves that a night of karaoke before our next day off is more crucial to our development as physicians than catching up on that extra sleep.

Well, aspiring rich heroes and evil villains (and residents), the research shows that even though you may become more familiar with this state of sleepiness from fewer hours of sleep a night, your performance on measures like concentration, reaction time, and minutes it would take to fall asleep in a boring class are all much, much worse when you don’t get your required sleep.

It’s believed a very small number of people—about five percent of the population—are “short sleepers,” those who naturally only need a few hours of sleep every night without getting sleepy later. What makes them that way isn’t sheer will—researchers think it’s due to a gene variant.  

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Even if you thought you had finally tricked your body into needing less sleep, studies show that if you were to sleep in a room with 14 hours of darkness and no alarms, the first night you might sleep 12 hours, then 11 hours, and so on until you’d be sleeping around 8 hours a night a week after the experiment began.

These studies show that most folks (especially those in their 20s and 30s) are walking around with at least 10 hours of sleep debt—which is a real thing! Following the experiments, once these people got caught up on their sleep, they scored better on attention, reaction speed, and even scales measuring their mood.

So while we may think we’ve Jedi mind-tricked our bodies into needing less sleep at times, we’d be a whole lot happier, more focused, and have quicker reaction speed if we got our required sleep at night, which for most people is around eight hours a night—even for evil villains.

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