- Lying awake all night might seem torturous to most people, but Shelley Russell is not ‘most’ people.
- She usually feels her eyes get tired and heavy around 10 pm or 11 pm. That’s when she closes her eyes and rests but only for a short while.
- It has always been just one or two hours - ever since she was a child.
“When I was younger, I did tend to read way into the early hours of the morning, or do school projects; but spending the entire night up did affect me in that I would have tired eyes.”
Today, her eyes are the first thing you notice about her: they sparkle with life.
An avid cyclist, Shelley has a lust for life and loves being outdoors in Cape Town. She says despite very little sleep, it hardly impacts on her quality of life.
“I have not experienced what it is like to sleep for 6-8 hours, so I don’t feel stressed about it,” she says.
There is no official name for her condition, but people like her are often referred to as ‘short-sleepers’.
Not on the normal spectrum of insomnia, it does not have the same negative effects as someone who suffers from sleep deprivation.
Ying-Hui Fu, a professor of neurology at the University of California discovered that certain individuals (just 5% of the population) have a genetic mutation on the gene DEC2, which results in this condition.
Shelley has been prescribed sleeping tablets in the past, which initially put her to sleep for five hours instead of her usual two. But after a few months, her brain fought against the meds.
“Our (short-sleepers) brains actually resist medicinal intervention by producing more glutamate, which is the major excitatory neurotransmitter,” says the professor.
Shelley says the medication changes her personality from calm and light to quite aggressive. Instead, she spends the night resting her body as she waits for 5 am.
Using ‘positive quotient exercises’ she engages her senses to think about the comfort of the pillow, what the sheets feel like, the warmth and comfort of her space. “I would say 90% of the time I feel wakeful and I am checking the time every hour. I am presuming that I fall into little pockets of sleep maybe 10 to 20 minutes and then awake up again.”
Every six to eight weeks, however, she gets a four-hour stretch. But thereafter, her sleeping pattern soon returns to her ‘normal’.
The condition is also hereditary. This trait runs through Shelley’s mother’s side of the family. “When my younger brother was small, he would ride his tricycle up and down the passage until the early hours of the morning, until he would just fall off,” she explains. And now, her son also has it.
Though most would consider this a never-ending nightmare and feel sorry for someone with Shelley’s condition, Professor Ying-Hui Fu’s study challenges our notion that quantity sleep is best for optimal functioning.
The study found that ‘short-sleepers’ in fact have more efficient REM states and are, therefore, more efficient sleepers. Their quality of sleep, though experienced in micro bits, is ultimately better as it’s of higher quality than someone without this genetic mutation.
Not only that, but it was also found that ‘short-sleepers’ tend to be more positive, optimistic, and active. This, Shelley is living proof of.
How are your sleeping patterns? Tell us about them here.