Genetics may play an important role in the development of insomnia, a condition that affects as many as two-thirds of adults in the United States. Although the risk of insomnia is affected by your lifestyle and other factors in your environment, your genes and family history can also increase the odds that you will develop insomnia.
The relationship between your genetics and your risk for insomnia is complicated. Certain genes make sleep issues more likely, and some genes that are related to insomnia overlap with genes that put you at risk for other conditions.
How Genes Affect Your Risk of Insomnia
Your risk of insomnia is influenced by your genes. Genes are composed of DNA and are passed down within families. Genes give instructions for the creation of proteins, which are responsible for carrying out vital processes in your body. Differences in genes can affect a wide range of traits, from your appearance to your risk of developing certain diseases.
Differences in certain genes can affect your risk of sleep problems. Because there are a number of different systems in the body that influence when you fall asleep and when you wake up, genes affecting any of these systems can affect your risk of developing insomnia or other sleep problems.
But genes alone do not cause insomnia directly. Insomnia is thought to be the result of a complex relationship between genetics, environment, and other traits or medical conditions. So, even if your genes put you at a higher risk of insomnia, it doesn’t mean you’re destined to have trouble sleeping.
Genes Relating to Insomnia
Researchers have found over 200 genes that may play a role in the development of insomnia. While studying these genes can help scientists learn more about how genetics affects a person’s risk of developing insomnia, it’s likely that other genes that play a role in insomnia have yet to be discovered.
Some areas of investigation include genes associated with circadian rhythm and genes related to neurotransmitters that affect sleep and wakefulness. Researchers are also looking into genes that affect the risk of other health conditions linked to insomnia.
Experts hope that building knowledge about the genes that affect the risk of insomnia may help differentiate between different types of insomnia and lead to more personalized treatments.
Circadian Rhythm Genes
One group of genes that appear to be associated with insomnia are those affecting circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms are near 24-hour cycles that affect various functions in the body. The sleep-wake cycle is a circadian rhythm that dictates when you sleep and when you wake up.
Researchers suspect that variations in certain genes related to the sleep-wake cycle might increase the chances of developing insomnia. This includes genes that usually promote wakefulness during the day and those that influence how you transition through the stages of sleep.
Genes associated with a neurotransmitter called serotonin may also be linked to insomnia. Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the body that help nerve cells communicate. Serotonin affects processes in the body associated with mood, memory, and wakefulness.
Genes that may influence the risk of insomnia include those that affect the breakdown or movement of serotonin in the body.
Other Conditions Associated with Insomnia
Genes associated with insomnia often influence multiple systems or traits. Experts are learning that insomnia shares a close relationship with other physical and mental health conditions. In fact, most people with insomnia have another medical issue and nearly half also have a mental health condition.
Research is underway to better understand the shared genetic factors that may affect risk for both insomnia and other mental and physical health conditions.
Stress and Insomnia
Daytime stress can lead to trouble sleeping at night and, conversely, sleep loss can increase your stress. While this link is important for anyone trying to get a good night’s sleep, it may be more significant for people with certain genetic variations.
Although the links between stress and insomnia are complex, research suggests that some people may be more likely to develop insomnia in response to stress. This is called stress-reactivity, which describes how quickly your body is able to adapt to stress and how likely you are to have a long-lasting effect of stress.
Anxiety, Depression, and Insomnia
Both anxiety and depression can have a significant impact on sleep. In fact, up to 80% of individuals with depression also have insomnia, and most patients with anxiety report insomnia symptoms. Researchers have found that depression and anxiety share genetic causes with insomnia, which may help explain how frequently these conditions overlap.
Substance Use and Insomnia
Insomnia is common in people with substance use disorders. In fact, trouble sleeping usually begins prior to the development of an addiction, and ongoing sleep troubles can increase the chances of a relapse after quitting.
Research shows that genetics may help to explain the association between insomnia and substance use disorders. In one study, the severity of insomnia in a group of alcohol-dependent individuals differed based on whether they had a specific version of a circadian rhythm gene.
Genetic Testing for Insomnia
Genetic testing isn’t a standard part of how doctors diagnose insomnia. Instead, your doctor might perform a physical exam and ask questions about your nighttime sleep difficulties and daytime fatigue. Genetic testing for insomnia is still being developed by researchers in hopes that these tests can expand the knowledge of how genes affect sleep.
When to Talk to Your Doctor About Insomnia
Even though insomnia is a common disorder, few people experiencing symptoms of insomnia seek out medical help. Recognizing and responding to the symptoms of insomnia is important as treatment for insomnia can decrease your symptoms, improve your mood, and help you accomplish your goals during the daytime.
You should talk to your doctor if you find that you’re having consistent difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. This is especially true if lack of sleep seems to be affecting your daytime focus, motivation, or energy. Working with a health care professional can help you determine why you can’t sleep and take steps to sleep better.