Lazy, burnt out or afflicted with the ‘sleepy gene’? I tried to find out why I sleep so much

Was it possible that I was afflicted with a sleepy gene?
Was it possible that I was afflicted with a sleepy gene? - Millie von Platen

The first time I realised this could be a problem – and by problem, I mean an actual health concern rather than a stupid story to tell friends in the pub – was the third time I watched When Harry Met Sally. Or more accurately, the third time I attempted to watch When Harry Met Sally.

I had a new boyfriend who was baffled that I’d never seen what he considers to be ‘the classics’– films like Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction – and so I agreed to watch his classics on the proviso that he watched mine (mainly sad films about gorillas).

Anyway, When Harry Met Sally was at the top of his list and off we went to watch it, only the first time we tried, I fell asleep before the opening credits finished, and the second time I made it to the scene where Meg Ryan orders an apple pie then – bam. Unconscious again.

For the third attempt, I pre-loaded on two cans of Diet Coke, then turned down the thermostat and threw off the blanket; I couldn’t risk being cosy. ‘Why don’t you relax?’ he said. I shook my head, too embarrassed to own up to what was going on. Halfway through I felt a familiar sensation – warm, sluggish limbs, heavy head and eyelids. But I dug my nails into my palms and pushed on. This time I made it.

My boyfriend was delighted I’d enjoyed the film. I was delighted I’d reached the end credits. Then he said, ‘Let’s watch Goodfellas next,’ and I shouted, ‘No!’ He looked confused so I covered it up by rambling about how I wanted to savour the brilliance of this film for a bit longer first – because really, who would admit the truth?

The day after When Harry Met Sally-gate, I phoned my best friend. She didn’t seem surprised. ‘It’s not like I have narcolepsy,’ I said defensively. ‘I don’t fall asleep at work or on bus stops, only during films.’ She hesitated and I knew what she was going to say – that was a decade ago, I argued, but she said it anyway. ‘Remember Mark Ronson’s party…’

It was the most fabulous party I’ll ever attend. Ronson was at his peak, Uptown Funk was high in the charts, and somehow my best friend wangled us on to the guest list for a private gathering he was throwing. It must have taken her weeks of favours. We arrived, ogled some celebrities, then she nipped off to top up her make-up and I saw a lovely big armchair in the corner and thought… I’ll just rest my eyes for a minute.

I woke to her shaking my arm, mortified.

A random man was taking a photo of me and sniggering. I hadn’t even touched a drop of alcohol (ironically I avoid it as it makes me sleepier). When I’m in sleep mode it’s hard to shake off, so I managed an hour of trailing around the dance floor after her, limbs leaden, mouth like cotton wool, before she said, ‘You may as well go,’ and I dozed all the way home in a taxi.

Waking up at 7am
Waking up at 7am

When I thought of it, there were other incidents too. Another friend likes to host suppers and I’ll often retire to her corner sofa for a snooze after pudding. She’s as close as family so I figured that was OK; then I was reminded of the occasion last December when, after dinner out, we all went back to the house of a friend of a friend I’d never met before and I curled up like a cat, nodding off mid-conversation.

And then there was the time my grandfather was ill and I travelled to Wales to see him but fell straight asleep on his sofa. It was dark when I woke. My grandmother was knitting in the chair next to me. ‘Why didn’t you wake me?’ I asked. She just smiled, ‘You looked like you needed a good rest.’

I’d always put this down to simply being a tired person, from a sleepy family. My mum often dozes off at 8pm – she considers 9pm an ‘extension’ – and my dad used to joke that there was a carbon-monoxide leak in the house, we all slept that much. There is shame, though, to admitting this, to making it anything more than a punchline.

Years ago, while I was editing the Midults column for this newspaper, Annabel, one of the duo and an insomniac, told me how maddening it was when people pushed advice on her, suggesting sleepy teas or lavender pillows or a string of other remedies that never worked. How much more maddening it would be for her – and the other 33 per cent of adults who have bouts of insomnia – to have someone reply, ‘Well I fall asleep within 90 seconds of my head touching the pillow and my real problem is staying awake.’ I sleep deeply, too. If I wear my eye mask and turn off my alarm, I’ll sleep and sleep. Sometimes I worry I’ll never wake.

If this sounds smug, like I’m describing a superpower, it’s anything but.

The average adult requires between seven and nine hours of sleep a night, reducing to between seven and eight hours after the age of 65. Few achieve this – research from Direct Line Life Insurance found that some 7.5 million Britons sleep for less than five hours a night.

I need 10 hours, ideally 11 – the same as a three-year-old. But I’m a 38-year-old woman: there are things to do. So I fight it.

There are medical risks to not getting enough sleep over a sustained period, including an increase in the likelihood of developing heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, as well as depression and anxiety. But there are downsides to excessive sleeping too. For one, it’s a terrible waste of time.

I’m achingly jealous of minimal sleepers. People like Margaret Thatcher, who famously required four hours. Tom Ford and Donald Trump claim to need only three. That’s seven more waking hours than I have each day, or 49 bonus hours a week. Enough time to read 255 extra books a year, to run 500 marathons (I’m a slow runner) or, more likely in my case, to rewatch the entire box set of Succession 63 times over.

Some rather obvious tips to combat tiredness are listed on the NHS website. Things like exercising regularly, losing weight, and drinking more water and less alcohol. I’ve tried them all: bouts of training for half-marathons, boxing sessions, then fallow periods of no exercise at all; I’ve lost weight and I’ve gained weight and I’ve gone virtually teetotal; I’ve mainlined carbs and followed protein-rich meal plans, but nothing touched my baseline, the minimum sleep I require.

And so for years I concluded I’m just a sleepy – read lazy – person.

Brad Johnson is anything but a lazy person. As a boy he would wake early and, while others slept, read or play basketball or listen to sport on the radio.

He is 67 now, the retired chief financial officer of an outdoor-equipment retailer, living in Utah with his wife Rosie. To this day he sleeps for about five hours a night. He doesn’t use an alarm clock. ‘If you offered me $1 million to sleep six-plus hours this evening,’ he tells me, ‘I could not do it.’

In all, six members of his extended family displayed similar patterns. They didn’t appear to struggle with alertness as a result of a lack of sleep. Their bodies just needed less of it.

When he was 48, researchers from the University of Utah performed blood tests on Brad and his relatives, and discovered that the cause was genetic. They are naturally ‘short sleepers’.

Their case is rare – the particular gene mutation found in the Johnson family shows up in just one in every 25,000 people. But there are other gene mutations that have a similar effect.

Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, heard from a woman who woke up at four o’clock every morning, completely alert, despite having had only four hours of sleep, and went on to research this further. In 2009, they discovered a mutation in the gene DEC2, which helps control the levels of orexin in the body, a hormone involved in regulating, among other things, wakefulness.

Tests on mice engineered to have the same DEC2 mutation showed not only less sleep time but, crucially, increased vigilance time compared with control mice without the mutation. Put simply, a lack of sleep in those with the gene mutation didn’t affect alertness.

In all, it is estimated that between one and three per cent of people are naturally short sleepers. In other words, masses of people are simply born this way.

So, could the same be true of people at the opposite end of the sleep spectrum? If short sleepers are born that way, then could I – and others like me – be afflicted with ‘sleepy genes’?

The answer this way around is more complex.

Long sleeper syndrome is broadly defined by the Sleep Foundation (part of a Seattle-based business that sells sleep aids and brings together information about sleep) as adults regularly sleeping more than nine or 10 hours a night. But in general long sleep is far less researched than its short counterpart, plus it can be the result of various factors.

‘It’s often associated with negative health outcomes,’ explains Michael Scullin, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University in Texas. ‘Among long sleepers you often find worse rates of cardiovascular and neurodegenerative disease.’ He also points to mental-health conditions, including depression, that can be associated with it.

Malminder Gill, a hypnotherapist and sleep expert based on London’s Harley Street, tells me that roughly 20 per cent of her clients with sleep-related issues are long sleepers. ‘Often [they] contend with mental-health concerns including, but not limited to, depression and feelings of emptiness,’ she says.

But Scullin adds that it is possible that some long sleepers don’t have underlying clinical conditions at all.

There is limited research into why this is. The Sleep Foundation simply says: ‘There are indications that there may be a genetic component to long sleeping, but more studies are needed to better understand.’

I put this to Ying-Hui Fu, a professor of neurology who led the DEC2 study: ‘We have evidence that some long sleepers are caused by genetics,’ she tells me. ‘We’re recruiting long sleepers to participate in our study.’

So, while it is likely, the jury is still out on the science.

sleep
sleep

In the 15 years that Michael Scullin has spent studying the science of sleep, one of his most striking discoveries has concerned chronotypes, the daily sleep schedules that determine whether you’re a morning lark or night owl.

In 2018, Scullin began tracking the sleep habits of a group of college students over a four-month period. ‘We found that roughly 10 per cent said they were one chronotype early in the semester, then at the end they gave a different response. We thought that this was really odd and surprising. We had been following the impression that [your chronotype] is set.’

Years earlier Scullin had realised how flexible sleep habits can be firsthand. He had typically gone to bed after midnight. Then he met Rachel, who would become his wife. ‘She was an early to rise, early to bed person,’ he recalls. ‘If I wanted to spend time with her I had to adapt to her schedule. It was really hard for a couple of months. Then I ended up doing it.’

These days he goes to bed at 10pm and rises without fail at 7am. Even if he has no need to set his alarm, this is his pattern. He has reset from owl to lark, and it took just two months.

I try this for myself, applying it to sleep length and mimicking my boyfriend’s pattern of seven hours a night. But soon I’m cranky and bleary eyed and I tell him we should see each other two nights a week maximum, giving me five to catch up.

Still, Scullin’s story is encouraging. Maybe sleep patterns can be flexible; maybe there’s hope for me.

Armed with this information, my antenna is suddenly alert to all things sleep. I notice the sheer volume of emails I receive – junk ones I’d usually delete unopened – promising to cure all sorts of sleep ailments. I file them into a folder. Maybe the remedy is hidden within.

The global sleep industry was worth £345 billion in 2019, and it’s growing at pace. It’s forecast to be worth £468 billion by the end of this year. The emails show its sheer breadth: some promote medical cannabis for insomnia, others recommend mysterious personalised remedies laced with magnesium citrate; there are 30-day multimedia sleep courses and invitations to a sleep school, and a Knightsbridge wellness centre with complicated-sounding ‘circadian lighting’.

Then there’s the tech: wristbands that promise to ‘optimise sleep schedules’, men’s underpants that detect data from your body and feed it into an app. Dozens of emails describe sleep-focused holidays; some have personalised pillow menus or sleep-promising silk pillowcases. Chelsea hotels employ ‘sleep concierges’; retreats in Spain are themed around ‘sleep immersion recovery’… But they all point to the same thing: we are a nation of insomniacs.

Not one mention of oversleepers or how to sleep less, even though long sleeper syndrome affects an estimated one in 50 people, according to the Sleep Foundation. I start contacting these companies, asking if they’ve conducted research into this too. The answer is the same: no. Then one stands out.

bedtimes
bedtimes

BodyHoliday is a spa resort in Saint Lucia focused on fitness. It employs some ex-national footballers and runs roughly 30 exercise classes a day. I’d heard of it because a friend, a sporty CrossFit type, spent her honeymoon there. But it also has a clinic and offers ‘wellness rehabilitation’, tailored to all sorts of things from digestive health to post-Covid convalescence.

The most popular programme is called Sleep Well. Since it launched in 2018, some 138 people have signed up. None to date have been afflicted with oversleeping, but Philip Carr-Gomm, a psychologist and author of The Gift of the Night, who partnered with the resort on the programme, has worked with people with hypersomnia, a condition characterised by excessive daytime sleepiness. And Maha Lakshmanan, the resident naturopathic doctor, leads it.

At first glance, it appears no different to the other sleep holidays in my emails, all bedrooms feng-shuied within an inch of their lives and a lengthy menu of latex pillows and 100-per-cent goose-down pillows and ‘Super Soft Gusseted Memory Foam Deluxe Pillows’.

But drill deeper and there is a seam of medical testing to BodyHoliday’s offering, conducted by Dr Maha, who qualified as a doctor of functional medicine at Dr MGR Medical University in Chennai and trained as a clinical thermologist in Miami; he’s confident he can fix me. So I sign up.

'This place should be wonderful. And it is... but for some reason I can't settle'
'This place should be wonderful. And it is... but for some reason I can't settle'

Before I go, Dr Maha emails me 129 questions, probing every inch of me, down to the size of my forehead and the colour of the coating on my tongue. Then a package arrives containing an enormous orange plastic jug with some instructions about peeing into it for a day, then shaking it to mix the urine with some chemicals. There are four test tubes, which I’m told to fill with spit at various intervals, before freezing the saliva and sending it all to a lab in a freezer bag, via courier, within a certain time window.

I do it, or try to, but I’ve eaten a chocolate Hobnob before my first saliva collection and it’s gone a bit brown, and later I’m told the results haven’t arrived in time, then they have arrived but aren’t valid for some reason that I still don’t understand (but that’s not related to the Hobnob).

No matter. Dr Maha has a whole list of other tests planned for when I get there: there are ECGs, lung function tests, heavy metal tests, musculoskeletal sonography and stress tests for my nervous system, as well as blood tests to examine everything from my cholesterol, hormones and liver function to my, er, spinal fluid pressure.

On the first night, Dr Maha greets me for dinner straight from the plane. This is my free-pass meal, I’m told. I can eat and drink as I please but from tomorrow I’ll have a diet to follow. On my best behaviour I stick to lean steak and green salad with a glass of iced water (though I could murder a Diet Coke). Surely I deserve brownie points? But Dr Maha tells me that from tomorrow I’m not to drink liquid at all while eating (apparently to prevent ‘diluting the concentration of digestive enzymes’) – and my drinking water should be tepid. No more ice cubes. He argues that the cold puts extra pressure on digestion.

I nod diligently. Then he hands me my meal plan.

The next day I sit down in the glorious midday heat to a lunch of… lentil soup. A table over someone is tucking into a salad, chunks of watermelon and the juiciest-looking tomatoes. I gaze longingly at it. But Dr Maha has advised me to stick to boiled or steamed food for now. My body composition is such that raw food may cause bloating and inflammation, he warns – in turn making my sleep less effective.

It’s two days before I cave. A waitress smuggles me a pocketful of chocolate fudge from the dessert buffet.

Really, this place should be wonderful. And it is. I wander to my prescribed tai chi class in rolling Japanese-style gardens; I join in aqua aerobics, where everyone is laughing and shaking their hips to Beyoncé with unbridled glee. One guest, a businesswoman from the West Midlands, tells me she loves it so much that she’s been 20-plus times. But for some reason I can’t settle.

Mindful meditation? Abseiling down a waterfall? Laura certainly had plenty to choose from
Mindful meditation? Abseiling down a waterfall? Laura certainly had plenty to choose from

Dr Maha books me a ‘bolus bag massage’. It’s taken in the fragrant ayurvedic centre, where treatments are inspired by ancient Indian medicine. As I lie there, stark naked, slathered in oil and slapped repeatedly by a strong lady masseuse wielding beanbags full of ginger and lemongrass and tamarind, I feel… irritated. A leaf blower is droning on outside and I lock on to it. Maybe it’s the sugar withdrawal. Or how chained I feel to my time-table here. But I’m on edge.

That night I can barely stay awake past 8pm.

On the third day, my test results come in. Dr Maha is mostly pleased. He has one main concern: my nervous system. It’s not functioning properly. Or rather, my sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) works wonderfully, but my parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for putting the body back into rest) doesn’t.

Dr Maha puts it in layman terms: ‘It might take someone else on average 10 minutes to relax back to a resting state, but it takes your body 50 minutes.’

How do I fix it, I ask. Obviously it’s not possible to eradicate stress entirely. He nods. It’s not about changing your life completely but making small changes, he explains. Like what?

‘Coriander juice,’ he says.

Er, I’m sorry?

‘Put coriander in a blender and mix it with water.’

And… drink it?

‘Precisely.’ He is beaming.

Later he explains that it’s a natural stimulant. Drink it three times a week on an empty stomach, he advises, or switch it for mint some days. There are other tips: I’m to breakfast on 10 almonds soaked in water; to take wheatgrass juice and omega-3. And practise a whole ream of breathing exercises, from ‘hissing breath’ to ‘psychic breath’, which do finally settle my racing mind. I’m given a 14-page plan of micro-changes to follow for three months.

One of the more exciting breakfasts Laura ate at the resort
One of the more exciting breakfasts Laura ate at the resort

But deep down I’m disappointed. This says more about me and our society than Dr Maha, who is nothing but diligent; subconsciously I’d been hoping for a quick-fix pill. But no… So off I go to John Lewis to buy a blender.

Three months pass. Warm coriander juice breakfasts don’t, unsurprisingly, make me leap from my bed full of joy. Dr Maha checks in. I tell him the breathing exercises are a hit. I don’t add that each morning I still crawl from bed muddle-headed, desperate for more sleep despite having had nine hours.

In the end, I put off writing this article for months. I tell my editor I don’t have a solution. She says to push on, so I try other things: I read up on polyvagal theory, controversial in some quarters, which centres around regulation of the nervous system. There are pleasingly simple exercises, like singing to myself after stressful moments. Only I’m in the work loo, people can hear. I feel ridiculous. And of course it doesn’t touch my sleep.

I visit a hypnotherapist too, and I do sleep differently afterwards. A clearer sleep rather than my usual thick-headed comas. But within a week I’m back to normal. Sleep-deprived. Groggy. Defeated.

Then, just as I’m about to give up, I turn to Michael Scullin. After all, he hacked his own sleep pattern; perhaps he can help me too. His answer is surprising: ‘There have been studies where they’ve tried to train individuals to get one hour less of sleep. Typically what they find is that you can get people to sleep less but they tend not to use that extra hour awake all that usefully.’

I baulk. So I’m to do… nothing?

‘The thing to keep in mind [and ask yourself],’ he continues, ‘is: if I added more sleep, would I find I’m happier, that I’m flourishing in life? Because people get used to perpetual states of sleepiness. But do you want to just get by, or do you want to see if there is another level to your well-being?’

I’m still unconvinced. Then I’m reminded of something else a wise person once told me. Years ago, not long after Life of Pi had become a bestseller, I interviewed the novelist Yann Martel about his imaginative process: what was the springboard for his ideas? I’d put the question to 15 other writers but his answer stood out. I try not to think about it, he told me. He worried that by examining the source of his ideas too closely, the magic could be lost; they could dissipate.

And so I apply this principle to my sleep: I stop analysing.

I may never read 255 extra books a year, I certainly won’t run 500 marathons. But maybe that’s OK. Because if Martel is right and probing undoes the magic, how awful it would be to go the other way; to become an insomniac who struggles to scrape together four hours of sleep. Or worse, to become Mariah Carey and need a full 15.

My boyfriend and I are still seeing each other two nights a week. I tell him that maybe we can flex that, I’ll just go to bed earlier. ‘Because actually,’ I admit, ‘I need a lot more sleep than most people.’ He says that’s fine.

On Friday night, as we’re finishing supper, I turn to him. ‘Shall we watch Goodfellas?’ He nods, delighted. It’s been six months since he first suggested it. Then I pull the blankets over us and cosy up – warning him this might take a few instalments – and I press play.

You can read more about the Sleep Well programme at BodyHoliday here  

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