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Is Insomnia Genetic? How Your Genes Can Help You Sleep Better

Written by Jim Duncan, MSW | Last updated:

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If you’ve had sleepless nights, you may have wondered what causes your insomnia. Is insomnia genetic, or are there other factors involved? Short answer is yes, insomnia can have a genetic component. Let’s explore more here.

Introduction To Insomnia And Genetics

Insomnia is an underappreciated condition, one that typically gets swept under the rug, shrugged off, or otherwise discounted as “no big deal”. It is so obsequious, that if someone asked you if you inherited something that messes up your sleep, you’d say, “Nah, doubt it.”

On a minor level, it happens to most of us on a fairly regular basis. We get stomach flu and are up every hour running to the bathroom during the night. It’s the night before a big job interview and you go through the questions 437 times while trying to fall asleep.

There are many things that cause a restless night, and it, in turn, causes many other things. Sometimes it happens to us, and other times we bring it on ourselves. It’s just one of those things. But it’s not.

Sleep is that best friend who does all the little things without you knowing that make your life ten times better. It’s the unseen framework of that house you call your body, made grand by nutritional and physical wellbeing.

So, what happens when that frame begins to sag, and that best friend gets tired of being treated poorly and disappears?

You start to fall apart, and that’s exactly what insomnia can do to you if you let it. And yes, insomnia and genetics are connected, like everything else in our lives.

Some Facts About Insomnia

Insomnia is the most common sleep condition in the US. In fact, about 1 in 4 Americans are struggling with it [1, 2]. It’s one of the reasons why sleep deprivation is a public health issue.

If that still seems shrug-worthy, in 2019, the International Agency for Research on Cancer deemed shift work to be a class 2A carcinogen, meaning it probably causes cancer in humans [3]. Shift work is a common cause of insomnia [4]. It’s hard not to overstate how important sleep health is to your overall health.

It’s true that insomnia is affected by genetics, but there are other factors that can also disrupt sleep. An important element of insomnia is the environment.

Interestingly, in the U.S., reported loss of sleep varies significantly across various parts of the country, running 15-20% higher in certain areas compared to others [5]. This points to the environmental factors involved in sleep issues [6].

Types of Insomnia

Insomnia is defined as clinically stressful difficulty falling asleep, maintaining sleep, or non-restorative sleep at least 3 times a week for a minimum of 90 days [7]. Basically, if you have ongoing, regular issues falling and/or staying asleep, you probably have an insomnia disorder.

Generally, insomnia is thought of as being of two different types, primary and secondary [8]. This basically means it is either caused by another health condition (secondary) or has no underlying cause (primary).

Insomnia also has 3 subtypes that can apply to either of the two main types. These are:

  • Sleep onset insomnia: You have trouble falling asleep.
  • Sleep maintenance insomnia: You have trouble staying asleep.
  • Mixed insomnia: You have trouble with both of the above.

Under normal circumstances, your body operates on a 24-hour cycle called a circadian rhythm, between peak wakefulness and deep rest [9].

Your body is built to run this system, and there are many variables involved in operating and maintaining it. It is a core, primary function of your body, so you cannot have optimal wellness without your circadian rhythm working properly. It affects not only sleep, but brain function, metabolism, immune system, to name a few.

If you’ve ever struggled with insomnia, you’re likely to [2, 10]:

  • Feel tired
  • Have trouble focusing
  • Have trouble remembering things
  • Feel irritable

And if it goes on long enough, may lead to more serious problems, such as [11]:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Asthma
  • Cancer

In other words, you don’t want to mess around with your sleep. Your goal should be to figure out what makes your rhythm run optimally.

We’re all a little bit different in that regard, and this can impact what might work best for you to avoid or get rid of insomnia. Genetics can play an important role, as you might expect.

What Are The Risk Factors For Insomnia?

Trouble sleeping has innumerable causes, both within and outside of your control. Some conditions, both mental and physical, can make sleeping difficult by their very nature, like cancer and depression. Often, it’s the environment you live in that can be problematic for sleep.

The list of factors is long, but here are some of the major ones [12, 13]:

  • Mental disorders
  • Stress
  • Chronic pain
  • Shift or night work
  • Noise or light at night
  • Traveling to different time zones
  • Going to bed at different times every night
  • Taking a lot of naps during the day
  • Sleep disorders
  • Genetics
  • Age
  • Gender

You have control over some of these factors, but not everything, of course. For example, stress is one of the biggest factors you can work on, and it’ll improve more than just your sleep. Another factor that can influence insomnia is genetics, and contrary to what you may think, understanding your risks can help you improve your sleep.

Is Insomnia Genetic?

About 40% of differences in people’s chances of developing insomnia may be attributed to genetics. Genes that may contribute to insomnia include [14, 15, 16, 11, 17, 18]:

Mutations in these genes can affect your circadian rhythm, brain function, and stress response and make it harder to fall and/or stay asleep.

One good example that directly impacts sleep is the MTNR1A gene, which codes for a melatonin receptor.

Melatonin cycles with your circadian rhythm, inhibited by light and triggered by darkness. Its production decreases dopamine levels and lowers nerve activity in the brain, helping you to fall asleep.

A mutation in the MTNR1A gene (rs12506228) can decrease the brain’s ability to utilize melatonin. With lower activity levels of melatonin, your brain remains active for longer. This makes it take longer for you to fall asleep [19].

Now that you know a bit about how your genetics can be linked to insomnia, you might be thinking you’re doomed to never get a good night’s sleep. But it’s quite the opposite – once you know more about how your genes influence insomnia, you can take steps to address your risks.

What Can Your DNA Tell You About Insomnia?

Your DNA can help you understand what risk factors are relevant to you based on your genes and what you can do to address them.

When it comes to improving sleep, stress is one of the obvious choices to examine for gene mutations. Yes, stress can make it harder for you to fall asleep. But stress is a dynamic cause that can come and go depending on a lot of factors, including genetics. For insomnia, something like the PER2 gene mutation is an effect you’d not readily consider.

A variant of this gene may disrupt your circadian rhythm, which can lead to insomnia. If you have this variant, exposure to bright light during the day may help you sleep better.

The reality is, many people have to get up at 6 am every day, but they can’t fall asleep until late at night. It’s an effect that doesn’t just come and go like stress. It just is, and it would be up to you to make the needed lifestyle changes to accommodate for it.

The SelfDecode Insomnia report allows you to optimize your health by uncovering what your genes are doing behind the scenes to affect your ability to get a good night’s sleep.

If you didn’t know about the link between insomnia and genetics, you’d be in a constant battle with yourself to get enough sleep and suffering the consequences when you couldn’t.

SelfDecode analyzes over 800,000 genetic variants related to insomnia to give you the most precise data on your personalized report.

Is insomnia genetic report

Unlike other DNA companies, SelfDecode goes a step beyond merely highlighting your genetic risk for insomnia. Your report also comes with evidence-based diet, supplement, and lifestyle recommendations to help you optimize your sleep.

Concluding Remarks About Insomnia And Genetics

Now that you know the answer to the question is insomnia genetic, maybe it will motivate you to take action to get a better night’s sleep. That idea of mind, body, and soul falls apart without the boring and seemingly waste of time aspect of sleep.

If you aren’t getting enough sleep, or enough of the right kind of sleep, now is a great time to start addressing the issue. The amount of time you spend sleeping adds up to around a third of your entire lifespan, and you want and need it to be as productive as possible.

Be proactive and start today by investigating your DNA to discover what might make you more able to sleep well at night. For a gene-based approach to insomnia, you should check out SelfDecode.

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About the Author

Jim Duncan

MSW
Jim completed his M.S.W. in Social Work Administration at Portland State University. He has always been interested in analyzing social issues, and he helped fund and start a program against domestic violence. He has also conducted many public speaking sessions about violence against women, and published 3 fiction novels. Inspired by SelfDecode’s mission to make precision health a reality, he decided to use his natural writing ability to help teach the world about the power and promise of genomics. His areas of interest include science-based writing,  astronomy, and genomics.

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