Emerging research offers new insights into how heredity impacts rest.
Sleepless nights can leave you feeling like you’re the only one awake. But you’re not. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than a third of American adults aren’t logging enough shuteye. Stress and busy schedules steal our zzz’s, but so do chronic disorders such as insomnia, sleep apnea, and restless leg syndrome.
And while the solution to a better night’s rest is complex, part of it may lie in our genes, say experts on the front line. Researchers have started to analyze human genetics to glean insights about our sleep patterns. What they’re finding may help us all sleep better one day.
For one, genetics can dictate whether you need six hours or nine every night. A landmark study published in Science in 2009 identified a mutation that allowed mice to function perfectly well on a fraction of the sleep needed by other mice. In 2014, University of Pennsylvania researchers identified a similar genetic variant in humans. The takeaway: Sleep needs vary widely from person to person, and that eight-hour requirement may not be your magic number.
Sleep apnea, when interruptions in breathing disturb sleep; and insomnia, difficulty in falling or staying asleep may have genetic links, too. “We know that if you’ve got a first-degree family member with sleep apnea, you’re at two-fold risk for it yourself,” says Allan Pack, Ph.D., the Penn researcher who conducted that 2014 study and just received funding from the National Institutes of Health to seek the genes responsible for obstructive sleep apnea.
“Understanding the genetics of sleep could help us identify people who are at risk for sleep disturbance and offer early interventions,” he explains.
If you’re at risk for sleep apnea, for example, you could be fitted with an oral device that clips over your teeth and keeps your airways open. “It’s conceivable that if you were to do that early on, you could prevent people from developing full-blown sleep apnea,” says Pack. For now, sufferers have to visit sleep centers for diagnosis and treatment, which ranges from surgery to sleeping with a breathing mask.
Genetic research is also trying to determine why some people with chronic sleep disorders like insomnia develop secondary problems such as diabetes and hypertension and others don’t. This could provide clues into proper treatment, since genes don’t just determine how you sleep, but how you’ll react to different therapies.
“There are people with insomnia who respond very well to cognitive behavior therapy [a drug-free counseling strategy], but it doesn’t work for everyone,” explains Pack. Knowing how to navigate sleep’s genetic underpinnings could help experts tailor appropriate fixes.
There’s been some progress along these lines already. Genetics research has determined that narcolepsy (which is characterized by falling asleep involuntarily) is linked to genes associated with the immune system. So it’s not exactly a sleep problem, but rather an autoimmune disorder.
Making such distinctions can help researchers develop drugs and other therapies that actually target the problem, rather than blanketing the symptoms. Narcolepsy patients may one day have access to drugs that interact with their immune system, which is what actually needs correction.
Doctors haven’t yet developed any clinical treatments for gene-driven issues yet, but they’re on the horizon, says Pack. Some day, that means diagnosing sleep troubles might start with a genetic test. This could dictate a bespoke solution, ranging form a prescription drug to a lifestyle change, that finally promises one thing: a better night’s rest.