Living with a short sleep gene: ‘It’s a gift’
“I’ve never been normal when it came to sleep,” Brad told CNN. “Other people, even some of my siblings, slept eight, nine, 10 hours a night. I just couldn’t do it, it was physically impossible. If you paid me a million dollars to sleep eight hours tonight, I couldn’t.”
It didn’t seem to matter what time he went to bed, how little sleep he’d had or how tired he was from the day’s activities, both as a child and now, at age 64, Brad said.
‘I’d get five hours and be done. Up, ready to go,” he said. “I wasn’t groggy, I wasn’t tired, just ready to roll and go.”
Brad wasn’t alone. In his large Mormon family of eight kids, his two older brothers Rand and Paul also woke early and suffered no ill effects. In fact, the boys were amazingly productive, driven to wake and immediately tackle life with gusto and high spirits.
In the dark, wee hours of those mornings the boys practiced basketball, did homework and hobbies and read everything they could get their hands on.
“Everyone in our family loves to read,” Brad said. “We are voracious, voracious readers.”
Brad’s older sisters Janice and Kathy also struggled to stay in bed, as did their dad, Vere Johnson.
“I’m almost certain he was a short sleeper, he always up early in the morning and he had this amazing energy level,” Brad said. “Mom, however, was a normal sleeper. She’d get seven or eight hours.”
The three youngest members of the family, Todd, Scott, and Rob, also had no trouble snoozing the night away, if their dad or siblings allowed it.
“I kinda remember being really irritated once in awhile when they’d turn the lights on me,” said 63-year-old Todd Johnson. “I like sleeping.”
A special family reunion
The years went by. Everyone married, prospered and had large families of their own.
“I only have four children and nine grandchildren, it’s probably one of the smallest families,” said Brad’s oldest sister, 71-year-old Janice Stauffer.
“Brad has eight, Paul has nine and my younger sister Kathy has 13 children and 70 grandchildren, but that’s a guesstimate,” said Janice with a chuckle. “When we have family reunions every other year in Utah, it’s a big mob, maybe 200 or 250 people can be there.”
It was at one of those bi-yearly reunions — July 4, 2005 to be exact — when Brad Johnson, his siblings and some of his large, extended family made history. They became one of the first multi-generational families to be tested for what would be later called the “short sleep gene.”
“It was a big deal for sure and the whole family were very nice and very interested in the science,” said sleep specialist Chris Jones, a professor emeritus of neurology at the University of Utah, who collected the family’s blood and DNA samples.
Brad wrote into his journal that night: “For most of the day Dr. Chris Jones and his assistant were there talking with members of the family and taking blood samples for a study he is doing on sleep behavior.
“We have some bad sleepers in the family — Dad, Rand, Janice, Paul, me — and he thinks there may be some things to learn from the family. I hope our family can lead to some solutions to sleep issues for us and others.”
The birth of the idea that people might sleep for only five hours and bypass the ill effects of sleep deprivation was sheer “serendipity,” said neurology professor Ying-Hui Fu, who conducts sleep gene research at the Weill Institute for Neurosciences at the University of California, San Francisco.
“Nobody had any idea that our sleep actually can be regulated by genetics until we published the first paper,” Fu said.
But not all of their study subjects fit that early-to-bed pattern.
“We went back to look at this one family and we realized they actually don’t go to bed early, they go to bed just like the rest of us,” Fu said. “But they get up very early, which means that they just sleep a few hours.”
During each of these studies, the team bred mice with the same genetic mutations to test the gene’s function. The results: Genetically-altered mice also slept for fewer hours, with no negative health effects.
As research progressed, the team discovered there were also some positive personality characteristics that came along with the ability to successfully sleep for only five hours. Many short sleepers were ambitious, type A personalities, but also incredibly positive, outgoing and optimistic.
“They were not just awake, they were driven. It was torture for them to do nothing,” Jones said. “They like to run marathons — many of our natural short sleepers ran marathons — including mountain marathons where you go straight up. One of them decided he was going to build a violin, and he did.
“The drive they have is physical, but also psychological: ‘I’m gonna do this.’ It’s really quite remarkable,” Jones added.
While these traits did not apply to every short sleeper, Fu said, some 90% to 95% of the people in the studies had these common characteristics, including phenomenal memories.
Even the mice in the study shared some of these traits. They were more active and productive than typical mice, and seemed to have better memories, even though they slept less.
“Yet mice, and presumably humans with the short sleep gene mutation, remember quite well on little sleep, whereas most people won’t remember much of anything if you deprive them of sleep,” she said.
Does that mean short sleepers have the secret to packing more of the healing benefits of sleep into less actual sleep time? That’s yet to be uncovered. Brad and his brother Paul were scheduled to be part of a sleep study to examine just that when Covid-19 hit last year.
A weight removed
The knowledge that there were genes that explained their unusual sleep habits was a huge relief for the Johnson family. Brad and some of his siblings who were short sleepers had spent years worrying over their “sleep disorder.”
“There were decades that I was seriously concerned because it’s not something I can fix. I can’t say, ‘Ok, I’m going to start getting seven or eight hours.’ It’s not possible to do that,” Brad said.
“I used to feel like my sleep habit was a curse because I fought with it for so long,” said Janice Stauffer. “I kept thinking, ‘I need more sleep, I need more sleep, it’s two in the morning and I need to go back to sleep,’ because you’re told you need eight hours of sleep to be healthy and able to function.”
Spouses worried too. Brad’s wife Rosie still does.
“Just a little,” she said. “I can’t help but think that your body needs to be rejuvenated and if you’re only getting half of the rejuvenation, it’s got to have some effect.
“But it doesn’t make him cranky and he doesn’t suffer from it,” she added, then admitted: “That’s quite remarkable and I’m a little jealous. I’d love to be as productive as he is.”
Thankfully, Rosie said she is an “easy sleeper” and not bothered by Brad’s late-to-bed or early-to-rise habits. Nor, she said, did Brad try to impose his sleeping style on she or their children, none of whom are short sleepers.
That wasn’t the case for all of the siblings. One short sleeper wanted his wife and children to rise and shine with him. Another tried to get her spouse to wake up early and join her on projects.
“My kids, the most they ever said was that I was really annoying in the morning because I was happy when they didn’t want to be happy, you know? They woke up grumpy and I loved mornings,” Janice said. (None of her children are short sleepers.)
“I look back now and say, ‘Oh, your life was so rough! All you had to deal with was your mom’s singing in the morning,'” she added with a laugh.
One fascinating finding for the Johnson short sleepers is just how much their personalities mirror the traits that are typically found in others with the same gene.
Take the family patriarch, Vere Hodges Johnson.
“What I’ve read is the typical short sleeper is a Type A personality, very driven, very positive, and looks at the world in a very optimistic way. That was my dad,” Brad said.
“Brad has a remarkable memory and so do his brothers and sisters who have this sleeping gene,” Rose said. “They have some similar traits in that they are very driven people, very motivated to be productive and they do get a lot done.”
Janice, who was an elementary teacher, spends most of her time with her children and grandchildren, but managed to learn new musical instruments while volunteering as a teacher and doing work for the church.
“It is a huge part of the Mormon faith to give back,” she said. “Now being a short sleeper doesn’t bother me a bit. I quite enjoy the really early mornings when it’s peaceful and quiet and there’s nobody around. It’s a great thing and if I get five hours, I feel good.”
Brother Paul holds a high position in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and had two children who carry the short sleep gene, while Brad has been “CFO of several large companies and has held a bunch of church leadership positions,” Todd said.
“It’s a culture, a lifestyle,” Brad said. “You’re here to do good. You’re here to take the gifts that God gave you and use those to help others, so it’s not unusual to see high achievement.”
Brad sees his short sleep gene as a genetic bonus, allowing him tackle the “hundred things I wanted to do” by giving him an extra two or three hours each day.
“Exercise has been big in my life,” he said. “I’ve run a lot of marathons. Reading, studying, correspondence, writing — all those things are great to do early in the morning or late at night.
“I am rarely, rarely ever tired during the day. I never take naps,” Brad said. “This gene has allowed me to be in some demanding roles and positions. It’s given me these additional hours each day that I can do things that I love, be with people I love.
“This has been a gift throughout my life,” he added. “A true gift.”