For most people, four hours of sleep per night is dangerously insufficient, triggering short-term cognitive impairment and long-term chronic health problems.
Luckily for Donald Trump—and increasingly, no one else—he’s not most people.
The real estate mogul turned presidential nominee has peppered his campaign with remarks about how little he sleeps each night, anywhere from 90 minutes to four hours. Perhaps he’s lying or simply bragging, opting to pit himself against powerful public figures who have said the same, like Napoleon, Margaret Thatcher, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, and Bill Clinton.
Perhaps he’s one of the two percent of the population with a rare genetic mutation that allows him to get a perfect night’s rest in nearly half the time.
Upbeat, energetic, and healthy, those with the “efficient sleeper” mutation are near-superhumans—a group of brains so advanced they’ve uprooting everything we know about sleep. They’re the tireless, unwavering, “sleepless elite.” Is Trump one of them?
Doing so puts him smack in the middle of a powerful list of who have claimed to subsist on little sleep as well.
Despite the renewed interest in Trump’s sleep schedule, it’s one he’s claimed to have for years.
“Don’t sleep any more than you have to,” Trump wrote in his 2004 book Think Like a Billionaire. “I usually sleep about four hours per night.” The narrative resurfaced at a campaign event in Springfield, Illinois last November. “You know, I’m not a big sleeper,” he said. “I like three hours, four hours, I toss, I turn, I beep-de-beep, I want to find out what’s going on.”
According to sleep experts, this is dangerous behavior.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine’s (AASM) officially recommends at least seven hours of sleep for adults aged 18 to 60, same with the National Sleep Foundation. Both are aimed at preventing the risks associated with chronic sleep deprivation, including obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.
“Sleep is critical to health, along with a healthy diet and regular exercise,” said Dr. Nathaniel F. Watson, the president of AASM. “Our Consensus Panel found that sleeping six or fewer hours per night is inadequate to sustain health and safety in adults and agreed that seven or more hours of sleep per night is recommended for all healthy adults.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one third of Americans are sleep deprived—a problem that leads to 100,000 traffic accidents from drowsy drivers per year. On top of heart and weight issues, the CDC says people who are sleep deprived are more likely to suffer from cancer and depression, more likely to lose productivity at work, and more likely to die young.
With this information, The New York Times and others conjured up a convincing “sleep-deprivation theory” about Trump, in which his chronic sleeplessness is to blame for his erratic, offensive, and downright idiotic behavior.
“He shows all the scary symptoms of sleep deprivation,” writes Timothy Egan. “His judgment is off, and almost always ill informed. He has trouble processing basic information. He imagines things. He shows a lack of concentration.”
Admittedly, this theory is highly believable. It’s comforting to think of Trump as “everybody’s loopy uncle.” A sleepless blabbering lunatic who, given a good night’s rest, might wake up and take it all back.
But enticing as the theory is, the Donald’s multi-billion-dollar empire and near perfect health at the age of 69 leave room for doubt that he’s been depriving himself of sleep for two decades with zero health consequences. While his comments point to delirium, Trump’s age, health, and financial success point to something more like the “efficient sleeper” gene.
Those who can sustain normal—even successful—lives on less than four hours a night with perfect health are a rare breed. There are two types of people that can achieve this: “habitual short sleepers,” and “natural short sleepers.” The first have trained themselves to sleep less, pitting them ahead of the competition but in danger of suffering long term health consequences. The second, less than 2 percent of the population, are carriers of a rare mutation on the DEC2 gene that allows them to reap the benefits of a full night’s sleep in half the time.
Habitual short sleepers, who’ve trained themselves, are powerful but more or less doomed. They’ve learned to conquer the short term effects of sleep deprivation, like cognitive impairment and emotional instability, but they’re not immune to the long term risks of keeping themselves awake. The brain needs its full amount of sleep to flush out chemicals it doesn’t need and “restart.” Without the ability to do this, the risk for dozens of diseases—like Alzheimer’s, which killed Margaret Thatcher—spikes.
Natural short sleepers are a whole different animal. Carrying a mutation on the DEC2 gene, they show near perfect health in their 90s and an endless supply of energy. With hyper-efficient brains, they reap the benefits of a full night of sleep in nearly half the time, leading the researcher who discovered them to nickname them “efficient sleepers.” They’re immune from the dangers of sleep deprivation because, for them, four hours is all they need.
In a word, they’re superhuman.
Discovery of the “efficient sleeper” mutation dates back to the early 2000s, when Dr. Christopher Jones, Director of the University of Utah’s Sleep-Wake Center, interviewed candidates for a sleep study on early risers. A 68-year-old woman came to him as a volunteer. Noticeably energetic, she told Jones that she and her daughter only needed six hours of sleep to feel rested. Both went to bed around 10 p.m. and awoke before 4:30 the next morning.
Nearing 70, the woman was perfectly healthy. She’d just returned from a 50-day cruise. She danced several nights a week. She was constantly on the go. Her life was so full that Jones said just talking to her made him “feel tired.” He sent her DNA information and that of her daughter to his collaborator on the project, a neurologist from the University of California San Francisco named Dr. Ying-Hui Fu.
After studying the genes, Fu noticed something odd. Both the mother and daughter shared an identical mutation in the DEC2 gene, which regulates circadian rhythms. It’s something she’d never seen before. After learning that both needed no more than six hours of sleep to function, Fu decided to test the mutation on mice. It had the same effect. Shorter sleep, but with the same results. The paper, heralded as a “landmark study” was published in Science in late 2009.
Today, both Jones and Fu continue to study the phenomenon. Neither will answer whether or not there’s any chance Trump is a carrier of the mutation. Fu, upon prompted, laughs a bit and says “it’s very, very rare.”
Together they’ve identified roughly 200 people with the gene, most of which share a number of characteristics: highly motivated, upbeat mood, faster metabolism, and a high tolerance for pain. “Their relentless drive is not a mood disorder,” Jones said in a press release from Utah in 2009. “There is a strong affective and emotional component to the feeling that you always want to do something. They can't imagine doing nothing.”
The New Yorker spoke with Allan Pack, a pulmonologist who became interested in sleep due to sleep apnea. After studying twins with the mutation, he concluded that the gene exists, but admits that the long-term benefits (or consequences) are still unclear.
Fu says she’s still amazed at how vivacious the group with the DEC2 mutation is, and is happy to report that she’s yet to see long-term consequences. “The people we study, most of them, I cannot tell they have any problems,” she says. “I have a woman whose father is in the 90s, and he’s still perfectly fine and energetic. We have many 90 years old and they just don’t seem to have many problems.”
At the moment Fu is working on several other similar mutations, ones that she hopes will eventually help people with insomnia find a way to improve their lives.
As to why the mutation isn’t more widespread, she’s not sure. “I think there is a reason we need to sleep eight hours. I don’t know why evolution didn’t select it but for most of us we need eight hours that’s critically important,” she says. “People are not just all about working more hours. People like to have fun and relax. I don’t think there is a major driving force to say ‘ok we’ll select only people who work a lot and sleep very little.’”
Maybe Trump is sleep deprived. Maybe he isn’t. Maybe he got lucky with a gene mutation that gives him boundless energy. If that’s the case, we can at least take comfort in the fact that his success isn’t so much hard work as it is luck of the draw. Luck that, with any hope, will soon be running out.