Poor Sleep Might Be Genetic, New Research Reveals

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You might be able to blame all those nights of crappy sleep on your genetic code. A new study published in Nature Communications found that poor sleep might be genetic, according to a news release. The study was an international collaboration led by the University of Exeter, and the researchers found genetic links among the quality, quantity, timing, and duration of sleep. This latest study adds to the body of research linking genes to insomnia and poor sleep, bringing the medical community a step closer to finding better solutions for people living with sleep disorders.

According to the researchers, this was the largest genetic study of its kind to ever use accelerometer data — like the kind you'd find in a Fitbit — to study how genes might affect sleep. The researchers analyzed data from 85,670 participants of UK Biobank, a long-term genetics and health cohort study, and 5,819 people who wore research-grade accelerometers during three other studies, the news release said. The participants wore the accelerometers continuously for seven days, according to the news release, which the researchers said provided more accurate sleep data than when people self-report their sleep habits.

The researchers found 47 links between the genetic code and the “quality, quantity, and timing of how we sleep,” as well as 10 new genetic links with sleep duration and 26 new genetic links with sleep quality, according to the news release. One of the new genomic regions the researchers uncovered is called PDE11A, the news release said. The researchers discovered that an uncommon variant to this gene can affect both how long and how well you sleep, according to the news release.

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“This study identifies genetic variants influencing sleep traits and will provide new insights into the molecular role of sleep in humans,” Dr. Samuel Jones of the University of Exeter Medical School and lead author of the study said in a news release. “It is part of an emerging body of work which could one day inform the development of new treatments to improve our sleep and our overall health.”

This study has emerged right on the heels of two other massive studies linking genes to insomnia, which came out in March 2019, according to Scientific American. Those two studies examined the DNA of millions of people and were able to link 202 areas of the genome to insomnia and implicate 956 genes with insomnia, says Scientific American. The researchers were also able to identify 78 gene regions associated with sleep duration, according to The Harvard Gazette.

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But just because poor sleep might be in your genes doesn’t mean you’re destined to toss and turn forever. There are things you can do to try to get a better night’s sleep, like create a relaxing sleep environment, avoid daytime naps, try to get physical activity if you’re able, and do what you can to manage your stress and worries, says Mayo Clinic. But if stuff like that isn’t working, Mayo Clinic says talk to your doctor so they can help you figure out what else might be going on.

As more research on sleep emerges, the hope is that there will be more tools to help people get a better night’s sleep. Until then, if practicing good sleep hygiene isn’t working for you, it might be time to have a chat with your doctor about other ways you might actually be able to feel well-rested — regardless of your genetic code.