Sleep problems are influenced by our genes – but this doesn't mean they can't be fixed

June 14, 2018 by Alice M Gregory, The Conversation
Credit: Andriano.cz/Shutterstock.com

Some people struggle greatly with sleeplessness, whereas others appear to be able to nod off effortlessly, regardless of the circumstances. Perhaps the most obvious explanation for differences between us in terms of our sleep is the environmental challenges that we face. An unrelenting stint at work, relationship difficulties or receiving bad news are just some of the many life challenges that can lead to sleepless nights.

It's no surprise that are associated with disturbed sleep. The way we respond to in terms of our thoughts and behaviours can then perpetuate the problem – it's not helpful to lie in bed awake willing ourselves to sleep, or to catastrophise about our sleeplessness.

Studies focusing on large numbers of twin pairs back up the idea that environmental influences are an important explanation for why sleep quality differs between one person and another. But they also highlight that run in families: if you struggle with your sleep, it's likely that your parents or grandparents did too. Looking at why this might be, it seems that our are important when it comes to our aptitude for sleeping soundly.

We're learning more all the time about which specific genes might be important, as I explore in Nodding Off, my new book on the science of sleep. Some more recent research into this has been conducted on a vast scale. For example, one study of over a million people identified genetic variants associated with insomnia, enriching our knowledge of the biological pathways by which insomnia develops.

The complexity of the underlying causes of sleep problems goes further than this, and it's been proposed for some time that genes and the environment go hand-in-hand. For example, some people are more likely to be exposed to certain environmental experiences (such as work stresses) in part for genetic reasons. Their sensitivity to these experiences (such as whether they will keep them up at night) is also influenced by our genes. Another example of genetic and environmental interplay is epigenetics, which means "above genetics". Our genes do not change, but how they influence us (whether they are "switched on or off" or "turned up or down" like a dimmer switch) can be influenced by the environment.

Can it be fixed?

So what does this all mean for resolving a sleep problem? You may think that the discovery that genes explain some of the differences between us in terms of our means that some of us are destined to sleep poorly and there is nothing much we can do about it. But, thankfully, that does not follow.

One of the very first lessons that a student of behavioural genetics learns is that just because something is influenced by our genes does not mean that changing the environment can't be the solution. The example so often given is that of phenylketonuria (PKU). This is a disorder in which the substance phenylalanine (found in certain foods) can't be broken down by the body and can lead to brain damage. While this is a genetic disorder, the solution lies in the environment: by carefully considering diet, the negative effects of this disorder can be prevented from developing.

It's clear that for insomnia (CBT-I) which addresses thoughts about sleep, as well as behaviour (including a relaxation component and making sure people do not spend time in bed awake) is the best initial treatment for those who suffer from chronic insomnia.

But understanding more about differences between people might also eventually be useful when it comes to treatment. There is current research interest in personalised medicine, with the hope that treatment can eventually be further tailored to the individual.

Nobody should feel that sleeplessness is something they simply have to endure. If you are struggling with sleep problems, talk to a doctor and try to reach a sleep expert. Different CBT-I online courses are being developed and tested and some appear to be helpful. Despite an array of different causes of sleeplessness, there is help at hand for a better night.

Explore further: Q&A: Insomnia—what to do when you can't sleep

Related Stories

Q&A: Insomnia—what to do when you can't sleep

April 6, 2018
Dear Mayo Clinic: What is the best way to eliminate insomnia? For almost a year, I've had trouble getting much sleep. I've tried over-the-counter medications, but they aren't very effective.

Can't sleep? Could be down to genetics

March 9, 2018
Researchers have identified specific genes that may trigger the development of sleep problems, and have also demonstrated a genetic link between insomnia and psychiatric disorders such as depression, or physical conditions ...

People who worry about insomnia have more health problems than non-worriers, study finds

November 7, 2017
People who worry about poor sleep have more emotional and physical problems during the day than those who do not worry, regardless of how well either sleep, according to research conducted at The University of Alabama.

Children's sleep quality linked to mothers' insomnia

August 31, 2017
Children sleep more poorly if their mothers suffer from insomnia symptoms - potentially affecting their mental wellbeing and development - according to new research by the University of Warwick and the University of Basel.

Sleep is key to curing chronic pain

September 21, 2016
Research from the University of Warwick reveals that the way chronic pain patients think about pain and sleep leads to insomnia and poor management of pain.

Suicidal thoughts follow bad night's sleep in people with depression

April 27, 2018
A study by University of Manchester researchers has shown for the first time that a bad night's sleep is associated with suicidal thoughts the next day in people with depression.

Recommended for you

Self-lubricating latex could boost condom use: study

October 17, 2018
A perpetually unctuous, self-lubricating latex developed by a team of scientists in Boston could boost the use of condoms, they reported Wednesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

How healthy will we be in 2040?

October 17, 2018
A new scientific study of forecasts and alternative scenarios for life expectancy and major causes of death in 2040 shows all countries are likely to experience at least a slight increase in lifespans. In contrast, one scenario ...

Study finds evidence of intergenerational transmission of trauma among ex-POWs from the Civil War

October 16, 2018
A trio of researchers affiliated with the National Bureau of Economic Research has found evidence that suggests men who were traumatized while POWs during the U.S. Civil War transmitted that trauma to their offspring—many ...

Father's nicotine use can cause cognitive problems in children and grandchildren

October 16, 2018
A father's exposure to nicotine may cause cognitive deficits in his children and even grandchildren, according to a study in mice publishing on October 16 in the open-access journal PLOS Biology by Pradeep Bhide of Florida ...

Many supplements contain unapproved, dangerous ingredients: study

October 13, 2018
(HealthDay)—U.S. health officials have issued more than 700 warnings during the last decade about the sale of dietary supplements that contain unapproved and potentially dangerous drug ingredients, new research reveals.

Age at which women experience their first period is linked to their sons' age at puberty

October 12, 2018
The age at which young women experience their first menstrual bleeding is linked to the age at which their sons start puberty, according to the largest study to investigate this association in both sons and daughters.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.