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Episode 2: The Short Sleep Superpower

Do these sisters’ rare genetic mutation hold the secret to better rest for everyone?

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Jane Evans and Joanne Osmond are sisters with a superpower: they only need about four hours of sleep a night! The sisters each carry a rare genetic mutation that experts like Dr. Ying-Hui Fu say makes them “natural short-sleepers” – people who only need a few hours of sleep to live their best lives. They don’t need caffeine to get through their day. They don’t experience jet-lag. Many short-sleepers have no health issues. Dr Fu believes Jane and Joanne may hold the key for how to live better: through “optimal” sleep. The future of her research might just revolutionize all of our sleeping and waking lives.

Learn more and submit your own sleep questions at www.vox.com/areyousleeping

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Read Episode 2 Full Transcript Below

Photo credit: Sela Shiloni

KATE [VO]: I’m Kate Berlant. I’m an actor, comic, writer, and host of this podcast, “Are You Sleeping?”, from the sleep experts at Mattress Firm, produced by Vox Creative.

[MUX IN: THEME MUSIC, ELECTRONIC BEAT, HIGH PIANO CHORDS AND DRUMS]

Today, we’ll meet some of the rarest kinds of sleepers, and a researcher who thinks these people might hold a secret key for everyone.

DR. YING-HUI FU: We have a potential to really completely change the world, to help everybody sleep optimally, therefore be happy and live healthy much longer.

Professor, Neurology, UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, Dr. Ying-Hui Fu

[MUX IN: THEME MUSIC]

KATE [VO]: I don’t know about you, but there have been so many times in my life where I’ve thought, “Ugh, if I just had a few more hours in my day.”

So what if I told you there are people who are magically given four extra hours, every single day? Four hours to do anything!

[MUX OUT: THEME MUSIC FADES]

JOANNE: Mentally demanding — minds do not stop. Our minds are continually thinking and processing and doing something.

KATE: Wow. You live a lot more life than the rest of us. [laughs]

JOANNE: We do, we do live a lot more life. I always thought that I was going to die early because I was so active and my mind was active, always doing things. But so far, I’m, I’m still alive, [Kate laughs] and it’s, and I’m still doing things.

Short Sleep Gene Sister, Joanne Osmond

KATE [VO]: Extra hours in your day to run errands, catch up on work, meet up with friends, or finally have time to exercise. It sure sounds like a dream, but what if those extra hours appeared in the middle of the night, when you’re all alone?

Would you still want all that extra time if you had no one to share it with?

[MUX IN: AUDIO DIARY FROM JANE, SOUNDS OF JANE AS SHE HAS HER FIRST CUP OF TEA OF THE DAY AND HER CUCKOO CLOCK GOES OFF – IT’S 4 A.M., TIME TO GET GOING, TIME FOR THE FIRST CUP OF TEA OF THE DAY]

KATE [VO]: That’s exactly what life is like for Jane Evans and her sister, Joanne Osmond.

[MUX IN: AUDIO DIARY FROM JOANNE, SOUNDS OF HER SHOPPING ALL BY HERSELF WHILE THE WORLD IS ASLEEP, IN AN EMPTY SUPERMARKET, 5:03AM, GOING TO BUY FRESH VEGETABLES]

KATE [VO]: Jane and Joanne have more wakeful hours than most of us, but those extra hours are usually spent alone, in quiet homes where they tiptoe out of bed or down the stairs so they don’t wake anyone else in the house.

These hours are usually filled in near silence, like, typing up early morning emails or doing the crossword on good old fashioned paper.

[MUX IN: SOUNDS FROM BOTH JANE AND JOANNE: JOANNE QUIETLY TYPING, JANE CREEPING DOWN THE STAIRS, SOMEONE HEATING UP SOMETHING IN THE MICROWAVE, ETC.]

KATE [VO]: And why this life of quiet solitude? Well, Jane and Joanne have a genetic superpower: They’ve just never needed very much sleep at all.

Short Sleep Gene Sister, Jane Evans

JANE: Me, I get like five and a half. Joanne’ll take naps. I don’t nap. And I wake up between four and five every morning.

JOANNE: My four hours includes any naps I take. I learned how to take short naps. And when I say short, I mean 15-minute nap. And then I’m up and I am ready to go. It doesn’t matter when.

[MUX IN: LIGHT HIGH PITCHED GENTLE NOTES/TONES]

KATE [VO]: Jane is 71. And Joanne is 73. They aren’t insomniacs, and they aren’t burning the candle at both ends. They are what scientists like Dr. Ying-Hui Fu at the University of California in San Francisco call “natural short-sleepers”.

DR. YING-HUI FU: These people are very healthy and they’re very happy and they’re like, almost like, [laughs] Homo Sapiens 2.0.

KATE [VO]: In her studies of natural short-sleepers like Jane and Joanne, Dr. Fu has found their abilities often extend beyond just needing way less sleep than the rest of us.

DR. YING-HUI FU: And some of them have fantastic memories. You know, they can speak 13 languages or some crazy number, you go like, “Wow.” [laughs]

KATE [VO]: And I get what she means, especially after talking to Joanne. This woman makes me feel very lazy.

JOANNE: I was very active, I did marathons, climbed mountains, just always wanted to do things, always going, going. And I also took online classes, long time ago, when it was computer science courses, and the best time in the world to be on was in the middle of the night when no one else was on.

[MUX IN: DIAL-UP TONE]

JOANNE: When I had five kids, I got my MBA and a degree in computer science.

KATE [VO]: Yeah. Joanne earned an advanced degree in a field many women of her generation weren’t exactly welcomed into, all while raising a gaggle of kids. Wow Joanne, leave something for the rest of us!

And her sister Jane was not exactly slacking off either.

JANE: I was a high school science teacher, and I always considered myself an, um, extra science teacher, so I used to teach at least four different subjects in a day.

[MUX IN: SCHOOL BELL RINGS]

JANE: I was one of those teachers that gave a test, you got the test back the next day. And so I was very, very busy. I never seemed to be um, wondering where I was going to find more minutes in the day cause I guess I had more minutes. And to be perfectly honest, I never even tried to question why, I just did what I felt I had to do.

KATE [VO]: That feeling of needing to do more, to fill the time, it might be a family trait. Jane and Joanne are the oldest of six children, and according to them, all the kids were short-sleepers. They think it all stems from their dad. He was up at four-thirty in the morning and headed into the office hours before anyone else showed up.

But not everyone in the family was a short sleeper.

JANE: Our mother was not.

JOANNE: We know our mom wasn’t [laughs].

JANE: And I’m sure we drove her crazy, because she would make us go to bed like at 7 o’clock, and we would complain that we couldn’t go to sleep. And I remember her saying this repeatedly, “That’s all right. Just rest your eyes. It’s almost as good as sleep.”

JOANNE: As a child, I’ve been told that I stopped taking naps at a year. I can remember the horror of going to a preschool where they made me take a nap, and I could not sleep. It isn’t that you don’t want to sleep. You can’t. So even from a very young age, I needed less sleep.

But when we were older, we built a house and we each had our own bedroom. And we were required to be in our room and supposedly with the lights out. But we learned very quickly how to cheat and have flashlights and lights under covers and put blankets around the door, so my mother would not know that we were awake.

[MUX IN: FLASHLIGHT CLICK, CHILDREN LAUGHTER]

JANE: But I still say they knew because we always seemed to have batteries for those flashlights. [Jane and Kate both laugh]

KATE [VO]: As Jane and Joanne got older, their sleeping habits didn’t change. But they did have to adjust. Like when Joanne married her husband of 52 years.

JOANNE: I was really, very concerned because my husband definitely needed eight hours of sleep and he expected me to sleep eight hours as well.

It’s hard for someone else who needs eight hours to understand why you need just four and I didn’t criticize him for needing eight hours, because that’s what all the books say.

And I couldn’t sleep eight hours.

KATE [VO]: For years, Joanne worried that something was wrong with her and her siblings. Why did they need so little sleep when it seemed like the rest of the world needed more?

But in 2011, Joanne read a newspaper article that changed everything. It was about people just like her, people with a rare, short sleeping gene.

JOANNE: And I said, “Oh my goodness, I’m not weird. I’m normal. I’m okay!” I, I, I can remember that moment like it was yesterday, because it was so ... I don’t know, liberating? Because I felt that there was something wrong.

KATE [VO]: Turns out there were scientists studying hundreds of people like Jane and Joanne and their rare genetic traits.

Scientists like Dr. Ying-Hui Fu.

DR. YING-HUI FU: This group of people, to me, prove to me that it is possible for a human to sleep four to six hours and still stay healthy and active and optimistic. That’s possible, right? We just have to figure out how to get there.

KATE [VO]: But is this gene really a blessing, or is it a curse?

More from Jane, Joanne, and Dr. Fu, and my sleep-BFF Dr. Shelby, after the break.

— AD BREAK —

JOANNE: We don’t take stimulants, when we, we don’t drink coffee. Don’t drink Pepsi.

JANE: I do not have high blood pressure. I do not have diabetes. I do not have a thyroid problem. I don’t have any of those things. I take absolutely no medication. I honestly am in better health, I believe, than anybody I know that’s my age.

JOANNE: And I’m the same, I don’t take drugs and I don’t have high blood pressure. I don’t have any of the same, any of those conditions.

JANE: We’ve never had jet lag. All right. I have gone from here to Spain and I’m pretty much instantly on their time.

JOANNE: Yeah, I, like Jane, I’ve traveled to Europe multiple times, and back and been to Japan and back. Never had it.

KATE [VO]: Can you imagine? No jet lag, no need for coffee! That is the reality for short sleepers, like these sisters. So, what can their health and their genetic code tell researchers about the rest of us?

[MUX IN: UPBEAT PIANO CHORDS AND BEAT]

DR. YING-HUI FU: We think about healthy lifestyle, and if I go on to the street to ask people, well, what do you think about healthy lifestyle? And most people will say, well, yeah, you know, I pay attention on eating healthy food and I exercise every day. And a lot of people don’t think sleep, right? And I want to say I believe good sleep is probably more important than healthy food and exercise.

KATE [VO]: Dr. Ying-Hui Fu is a human geneticist extraordinaire, and a sleep evangelist. She’s obsessed with studying it, and lights up when talking about it.

DR. YING-HUI FU: It’s so simple. You just have a good night’s sleep. You have to get it. [laughs] That’s what I feel like saying, it’s so simple. But the thing is that now, because our societies, the stress, we don’t get good quality sleep.

KATE [VO]: And Dr. Fu says the importance of good sleep to our health and wellbeing cannot be overstated.

DR. YING-HUI FU: So when we are sleeping, our body actually is working very hard for us. They’re removing toxins that your body accumulates during awake hours, right. Your body’s also also trying to repair when you’re sleeping. And our body is generating new energy for the next days. And there are other very important functions, for instance, we need good sleep so we can remember everything we learned the day before. Right? And so those are many, many functions, and these are just few that very fundamental functions.

KATE [VO]: Dr. Fu used to study neurodegenerative diseases before she started researching sleep. She focused on “morning larks,” people who get up super early because they go to bed super early.

That’s when she discovered a family who had an even more unusual sleep pattern.

DR. YING-HUI FU: We realized that with this particular family, they are really not the typical morning larks, because they do get up early, but they don’t go to bed early. They actually stay up as late as most people. And that’s when we realize that, okay these people are not morning larks. They actually just sleep fewer hours.

And so after we found the mutation for that particular family, and there were so many people emailed me, I got, I don’t know, thousands of emails that say, “Oh, I know somebody like that,” or, “I’m one of them.”

KATE [VO]: So Dr. Fu and her colleagues started focusing on these people they call “natural short sleepers.” And as basic as it may sound, their research emphasized this simple conclusion:

DR. YING-HUI FU: The reason they are so, um, healthy and happy is because they get very good night’s sleep.

KATE [VO]: Ahh, a good night’s sleep. Dr. Fu calls it “optimum sleep.” And the amount doesn’t matter — could be four hours, eight hours, or in the case of your host, dear listener, I like nine hours — but it has to be restful, to allow your body to do its thing while you’re unconscious.

DR. YING-HUI FU: Our goal is use these short sleepers’ genetics and biology to teach us, how can we get optimum sleep, like all these natural short sleepers? So the rest of us, all of us can benefit from good sleep and therefore we can stay healthy and be happy.

KATE [VO]: But we can’t just flip a switch and need less sleep. There are plenty of people who fake themselves into thinking they’re short sleepers. Dr. Fu calls them “habitual short sleepers.” And it’s not a great habit to have.

DR. YING-HUI FU: And they are the type to actually train themselves to sleep less. It’s almost like their willpower to force them to sleep less, and they can perform like that for a long, long time. And I think the thing that a lot of people don’t understand is that if you, if your body needs eight hours of sleep like me, and I can function fine by six and a half or seven hours for a long time, but the problem is that if I do that for more than a week, I will most likely perform at 70 percent of my capacity.

And I can live like that for decades. And in the long run, your body toxins doesn’t get cleared up enough, night after night after night. Your damage in your body doesn’t get repaired to the appropriate level, night after night after night. So one or two decades later, you may get this disease and that disease and you don’t even know it’s because you didn’t pay attention to your sleep. So that’s the key.

KATE [VO]: Here’s the thing. Dr. Fu isn’t trying to help us get less sleep by studying these short-sleep genes. Instead, each genetic quirk is yet another part of the overall puzzle.

DR. YING-HUI FU: If we get good sleep, we can significantly drop the incidence of many, many diseases, including high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer, [laughs] immune function. And that’s when I thought, “Oh my God, you know, this is a complete paradigm shift in the way that we should think about health and medical research.”

And then I gradually realized, “Oh my god, why do I waste my time in diseases? I should just study sleep.”

KATE [VO]: By now, Dr. Fu and her team have identified rare mutations, like one in one hundred thousand people that seem to allow for some amazing abilities. And Dr. Fu says the short sleep gene is actually five different mutations in four different genes. Together, they add up to this superpower, to stay healthy on only a few hours of rest a night.

DR. YING-HUI FU: I probably have communicated with, you know, more than 500 or a thousand short sleepers. I want to say there’s nothing obvious that is negative for them. And, you know, we can never say absolutely, right? But so far, up to 15, almost 20 years in talking to so many people, it just doesn’t seem to have any obvious negative effect on them.

[MUX RAISED AND THEN OUT]

KATE [VO]: Maybe Dr. Fu hasn’t found any negative physical effects, but that doesn’t mean having this trait is always a good thing. Joanne and Jane opened my eyes to a surprising downside, one I hadn’t really considered before our conversation.

KATE: Fascinating, I’ve never talked to anyone who needed less sleep than I thought we all needed. And quite frankly, like I said, I’m jealous of, um, how you both make such use of those extra hours. [laughs]

JOANNE: Don’t be jealous.

There really are downsides. It is very, very lonely.

We’re not the most social in the world. And so we don’t go to, I don’t know, whatever people do, where they go to gather together. We fill it with very individual time. We’re introverted. You become, even if you’re not born that way, I don’t know how you wouldn’t be introverted, because we learned to just exist with our own minds and our own thoughts and it’s hard to explain the feeling you get when you are the only one up, driving down the street and having all the lights from all your neighbors off.

Yeah, it’s a lonely feeling you get used to. You get used to it, you know, not 100 percent, but it’s just the norm.

KATE [VO]: This loneliness they describe, being awake with no one to share it with, that is not nearly as rare as the short sleep gene.

So, I turned to our sleep expert and therapist Dr. Shelby Harris. I wanted to get her take on how people who can’t sleep deal with long, lonely nights.

Clinical psychologist, Dr. Shelby Harris

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: Even if you are more of an introvert, we do still crave social connection. And if you’re up in the middle of the night for many hours, you’re not getting that connection that we crave. Everyone else around you is sleeping. And I think the resentment can also build too, which can also lead to more, you know, not even with someone who’s in the house, but maybe people who are outside like, why is it the rest of the world can sleep and I can’t? It’s the loneliness, but also causes a lot of resentment. And then we find that it can lead to, you know, more mood issues and just relationship issues as well.

KATE: Yeah, it’s interesting you say that because Joanne and her husband had very different sleep schedules, and I think it kind of frustrated her because she wanted to sleep like a quote-unquote normal person and just couldn’t do it.

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: When we get married or couple up to live together, we’re not exactly doing, like, circadian analysis to see if it’s going to last. But what I often work with is trying to get people to understand that even though you’re sleeping in the same bed, it doesn’t mean that you have the same amount of sleep need, and the same sleep timing. And if you just keep wishing that you could be on a same pattern as someone else, it’s not going to necessarily fix itself.

KATE [VO]: And it’s not just short sleepers who go through this. Dr. Shelby says these problems are more often felt by people who have a really common type of sleep condition: insomnia.

[MUX IN: LIGHT REPEATING CHORDS AND A STEADY PIANO BEAT]

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: There’s a high overlap of depression and insomnia. Because it’s quiet, there’s not much to do. You’re by yourself and you’re trying to do something and getting frustrated that you can’t do something that everyone else is doing.

It’s gotten a little better because you can be connected to the world through the internets. But for a long, long time, there wasn’t really much on at two, three in the morning on the TV. It was just constant ads to remind you that you weren’t sleeping And then you look outside, it’s dark and it’s just constant reminders left and right of why you can’t sleep as well as people in your house who are sleeping.

And then if you’re tiptoeing around with flashlights, right, you want to sleep, but you’re also making sure you don’t disrupt anyone else’s sleep, which makes it even more complicated and frustrating for a lot of people.

KATE [VO]: Now, you can’t force yourself to sleep just because everyone else in the house is. Trust me, I have tried. But Shelby says you do have power over the way you think about sleep.

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: Your relationship with sleep can change if you just can’t sleep more at night, no matter how much you like your relationship with sleep and relationship with the night. So it’s less of I wish, I wish, I wish, and more of, I accept. And it sounds like that’s more of what these women have done, in they accepted that it is what it is, and they changed needing to rely on people in the middle of the night. And it’s that acceptance and commitment to what you’re doing in the moment, is a game changer for some people.

KATE [VO]: Or, as Jane puts it:

JANE: I take it and leave it. When I’m tired, I sleep, and when I’m not, I don’t. I don’t strive for any hours because, by now, I know I’m not going to get them.

KATE [VO]: At this point, I’m torn. Truly not needing much sleep seems like a superpower, but for some, the loneliness of sleepless nights is absolutely miserable. So I asked Jane and Joanne directly. Their sleep-short gene: Is it a blessing, or a curse?

JANE: I would say it was probably a gift. Okay, yes, I’ve got, you know, times when I’m really by myself now that I’m older, but I occupy myself, I find things to do. I’m, I’m not, like, depressed or lonely, you know, isolated or whatever. So I would come out and say that for the most part, since you spend a great deal of your time productive, working, raising children, I think it was probably a gift.

KATE: And what do you think Joanne?

JOANNE: I don’t look at it really as either. It just is. It is just like, like anything we inherit from our family, and we learn to adapt it. I don’t think of it as a gift. I know that, I guess, because I’ve, I send many emails in the middle of the night, because I’m up working on projects, and I get many criticisms, “Why are you sending me emails at three o’clock in the morning?” Well, because I was up.

[BEAT]

KATE [VO]: So, what have I learned from this? Some short sleepers may be superhuman machines who can seemingly do it all, physically and mentally. But for some people, maybe having an extra four hours a day to get everything done isn’t worth it, there is a pressure to fill our waking hours. Loneliness is a real struggle. And isolation can cause its own mental and physical problems as we age.

Still, I think it’s fascinating that scientists are trying to figure out how our genes impact our sleep. Not because we should be trying to become short sleepers, but because these genes may hold the code to unlocking restful, optimal sleep, and that could help us all live longer, healthier lives.

So instead of beating yourself up about how long you’re sleeping each night, maybe it’s better to find out what it takes for you to feel refreshed and re-energized every morning. Because not everyone fits into that eight-hour-a-day box. But everyone deserves the peace of a good night’s rest.

[MUX IN: THEME MUSIC]

KATE [VO]: Next time, on “Are You Sleeping?”, we take questions from you, our curious and sometimes sleepless listeners.

And coming soon:

ANTOINETTE: You know, I like to say out here you live your life in 10-hour shifts. You take a 10-hour break, you might drive 10 hours, or you might be up for 10, you know, it’s like you’re kind of living 10 hours at a time.

KATE [VO]: Two stories of people who sleep in their vehicles, for very different reasons.

KAMERON: Yeah, that was a, uh, Nissan Sentra. I ended up living in that basically a full year. And there was no room to sleep in the back seat and so I slept in the driver’s seat, just put down.

[MUX IN: THEME MUSIC]

KATE [VO]: To find out more about this podcast, join us at “VOX DOT COM SLASH ARE YOU SLEEPING”.

Subscribe now and be sure to tell your friends about the show! That’s the best way for us to get the word out.

[CREDITS]

KATE [VO]: “Are You Sleeping?” is brought to you by the sleep experts at Mattress Firm and Vox Creative. I’m Kate Berlant. Our supervising producer is Isaac Kaplan-Woolner. Taylor Henry is production manager and Jessica Bae is coordinator. Annu Subramanian is executive producer. Story hunter is Alli Keeley. We are produced by Catherine Fenollosa, Andrea Asuaje, Elin Lantz Lesser, and James Trout.

Thanks to our guests, Joanne Osmond, Jane Evans, Dr. Ying-Hui Fu, and our sleep expert Shelby Harris. And a special thanks to Heather Barrett and the Mattress Firm team who make this show possible.

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