Is Insomnia Genetic? New Research Says Your Sleep Phases Could Be Passed Down

Wavebreak Media/Shutterstock

Your difficulty falling asleep or getting up in the morning might be written into your genes, a new study says. If you feel like you’re living in a state of permanent jet lag — with your body wanting to sleep when you want to be awake and be awake when you want to be asleep — it’s time to stop blaming yourself. But that doesn’t mean you have to surrender control: even though genes play a role in your sleep cycle, you can still break your genetic cycle and get to sleep when you want.

Published in the journal Sleep, the new study followed the sleep patterns of over 2,400 people who visited a sleep clinic because of sleep apnea or insomnia. It found that sleep patterns vary amongst families, including a sleep cycle known as advanced sleep phase (ASP). You might recognize this ASP in yourself if you find yourself consistently waking up extremely early, no matter when you went to bed or how much extra sleep you were trying to get over the weekend. And it turns out that this predisposition to waking up early may be genetic, with familial advanced sleep phase (FASP) accounting for a majority of studied ASP cases.

In other words, if you an early-to-bed, early-to-rise type person — even when you try desperately to sleep in on the weekends — you probably have a close relative who shares your sleep patterns. And this study found that you sleep patterns aren’t your fault, and aren’t solely the result of familial socialization. The study suggested that a dominant mutation in your genes might shape your sleep patterns just as much as any social or personal factors.

Mladen Zivkovic/Shutterstock

But what about people for whom sleeping and rising early is a (perhaps literal) nightmare? If you’re one of those folks who naturally can’t fall asleep any time before midnight regardless of what time you have to get up in the morning, your sleep cycle might tend toward delayed sleep phase (DSP). This form of insomnia may also be caused by a dominant genetic mutation, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Cell.

Both forms of sleep extremes may dramatically impact people’s work and social lives. According to Jefferson University Hospitals’ website, many early-to-bed, early-to-rise folks with ASP get high-quality sleep but less-than-high-quality social lives. “Many feel alienated when they have to skip out of social gatherings in the evenings because of overwhelming sleepiness,” the site said. “They may also feel too sleepy to function in the afternoons and evenings.”

And on the opposite end of the sleep spectrum, people who can’t seem to fall asleep at all during the night often experience chronic exhaustion, anxiety, or isolation from being awake when others are sleeping. This can be accompanied by difficulty getting up for work and family obligations in the morning.

G-StockStudio/Shutterstock

So what’s a person with one of these dominant genes to do? Recognizing that you can control certain aspects of your sleep is important: People who tend toward ASP might want to try to go to sleep later to adjust their bodies to waking up later. The Sleep Health Foundation recommends pushing back your bedtime by 20 minutes later each night, using the assistance of bright light stimulation to help keep you awake until a half hour before it’s time to tell your body to sleep.

And for people who tend toward DSP, the Cleveland Clinic recommends avoiding caffeine and stimulating activities before bedtime. The Clinic also recommends that you avoid sleeping all day on weekends to compensate for sleep loss is also important, with the logic that your body will accumulate enough exhaustion to eventually sleep on a more comfortable schedule.

However, this new Sleep study suggests that while you can manage many aspects of your sleep schedule, you might also choose to lean into your natural sleep habits. Being gentle with yourself when you can’t sleep or when you wake up extremely early is important. And finding calming activities in the quiet may be helpful for staving off the potential loneliness of being awake when others are not. Because you might not be able to control your genes, but controlling as many factors as possible can help you combat the beast that is sleep.