Why is This Young Woman Tired All the Time?

Doctors suspect hypersomnia, but the answer lies deeper in this sleep addict's brain.


Sleep was consuming Anna Sumner’s life. Her yearning for sleep first emerged in the early 1990s when she was a high school senior. Later, as a Princeton undergraduate, she alarmed her parents by spending large chunks of the holidays at home in bed, asleep. 

Her flexible schedule, which continued through law school at Duke, allowed her to conceal her prodigious sleep needs from herself and others. Still, she knew something was badly wrong: Regularly forgoing breakfast or a shower to gain a few extra minutes of shut-eye and sleeping away a friend’s wedding after traveling cross country for the event just weren’t normal behaviors.

The demands of the workforce finally forced a reckoning. By the time Anna sought me out at Emory University’s Sleep Center in 2005, she was devoting at least 12 hours a day to sleep. Yet it never felt like enough. Her cravings for sleep rivaled an addict’s compulsions for a fix. 

The generic name for Anna’s persistent sleepiness, which no amount of sleep could erase, is hypersomnia. More colorful terms include the German Schlaftrunkenheit and the French ivresse de sommeil, both of which translate as “sleep drunkenness,” a moniker that captures the insatiable sleep needs of the hypersomniac and the blackouts and hangovers that follow.


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