Is Insomnia Genetic? According To A New Study, It Could Run In Families

Andrew Zaeh / Bustle

If you've tried counting sheep, medication, and everything in between to try to get to sleep to no avail, the secret might lie in your genes. According to a new study, insomnia might be genetic. The study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, noted that between 10 and 20 percent of people in the U.S. suffer from insomnia, which is the habitual inability to sleep and it significantly contributes to both mental and physical health problems. "We confirmed evidence of significant heritability of insomnia disorder using genotype data," the study reported.

"Furthermore, consistent with the observation from twin studies ... insomnia and major depression share common genetic variance." As a lifelong member of the insomniac club, I can attest that not being able to sleep is frustrating AF. Basically, it feels like moving through your life while underwater. And, sleep is pretty important, because when you're sleep deprived your brain destroys its cells faster than it can make new ones, according to New Scientist.

The insomnia study also reported that women suffer from a higher rate of insomnia than men, especially as they get older. Because gene-related insomnia studies are in their infancy, and researchers were not able to identify one specific gene, I'm sorry to report that the study did not offer any remedies for long-suffering insomniacs. Additionally, the 2017 study published in Nature Genetics identified seven genes that might contribute to whether or not you're at risk for insomnia. However, the good news is that it's not all in your head as was previously thought.


“As compared to the severity, prevalence and risks of insomnia, only few studies targeted its causes. Insomnia is all too often dismissed as being ‘all in your head,'" Eus Van Someren of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience noted on the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam's website. "Our research brings a new perspective. Insomnia is also in the genes.” The study also found that the same genes responsible for insomnia are also responsible for two other sleep disorders — periodic limb movements of sleep and restless leg syndrome.

Like the new study in Molecular Psychiatry, the 2017 study also found a higher prevalence of depression and anxiety disorders in insomniacs. "This is an interesting finding, because these characteristics tend to go hand in hand with insomnia," Neuroscientist Anke Hammerschlag, Ph.D., a student and first author of the study, told Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. "We now know that this is partly due to the shared genetic basis."

Insomniacs May Lack The 'Comfort Gene'


Additionally, the website Six Steps to Sleep noted that people who do have genetic insomnia may lack what is know as the "comfort gene," which is responsible for the warmth and relaxation that helps other people fall fast asleep within 15 minutes. "This group of people is genetically engineered to maintain a state of alertness," Six Steps to Sleep explained. "Of course this presents a playing field for sleep problems, and as such those with the insomnia gene lack the ability to sleep for prolonged periods of time, and instead sleep in short bursts through the night."

Even more compelling, "One of the most interesting discoveries is that some insomniacs seem to have a diminished capacity to judge comfort," Van Someren told Six Steps to Sleep. "If you put materials with different temperatures on their skin, they seem to give random answers about whether they like it or not. Feeling warm and comfortable is essential in falling asleep." What's more, another study published in the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews found that the way your genes respond to stress could also trigger insomnia. The irony of this discovery is that lack of sleep can add to your stress which in turn contributes to insomnia, creating a vicious stress-sleep cycle.

Help Is On The Way, Eventually


"Genes are involved with how much sleep you need, and it is estimated that there could be six or more different types of insomnia linked to genes," Terry Cralle, certified clinical sleep educator, consultant for the American Sleep Apnea Association and director of Business Development for the Woodlands Sleep Evaluation Center in The Woodlands, Texas, is quoted as saying on the website Philips. "Recent research has found that sleeping during the day may disrupt approximately one-third of your genes."

Good grief. Clearly there is no rest for the weary. And, with studies just getting started, there are a lot of competing findings. So, for now, the best way to try to get at least some of that coveted shut eye is to practice good sleep hygiene, like clean sleeping. This is mostly rooted in common sense and includes things like cultivating a relaxing bedtime routine, powering down devices at least an hour before going to sleep, creating a comfortable sleep environment, and meditating. I'm sorry I don't have better news, my fellow insomniacs, but the silver lining here is that the discovery that genetics plays a role in sleeplessness means that help will be on the way, eventually.