Most cases of insomnia are caused by inappropriate sleep-related thoughts and behaviors or other medical conditions such as cancer, chronic pain, obesity, irritable bowel syndrome, and Alzheimer’s disease. However, new research suggests that sleep disturbances may also be influenced by genetics.
A 2017 study published in the journal Nature Genetics analyzed the genetics of more than 113,000 individuals and identified seven genes that were associated with insomnia complaints.
Introducing the MEIS1 gene
Researchers identified the MEIS1 gene as having the biggest association with insomnia complaints — a gene that was already linked with two sleep disorders; restless legs syndrome (RLS) and periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD).
This association is particularly interesting due to the similarities of the sleep disorders — RLS and PLMD are associated with restless movement and sensations and insomnia is associated with restless thoughts.
More genetic links
Researchers also found that part of the genetic variants were different in men and women, suggesting that insomnia may be caused by different biological mechanisms between genders.
The study also found that women were more likely to report suffering from insomnia compared to men, and that genetic markers for insomnia had significant similarities with other traits associated with insomnia such as:
Genetics may be the cause, but do not prevent a cure
Genetic factors do appear to play a role in insomnia — an earlier study involving twins found that genetic factors influence insomnia symptoms. Future research on the influence of genetics on sleep could lead to the eventual development of new drugs for insomnia.
With that being said, this is a relatively new area of research and overwhelming evidence still points to sleep being most strongly influenced by our thoughts and behaviors, and other medical conditions.
Even if your genes may predispose you to insomnia or other sleep issues, this doesn’t mean they’ll permanently prevent you from getting a good night’s sleep. There are a number of steps you can take to improve your sleep, regardless of the cause of your sleep disturbances.
If you’re keen to improve your sleep without relying on sleeping pills, make sure you’re getting regular exercise and give relaxation techniques such as mindfulness meditation a try. If your sleep doesn’t improve, consider seeking medical advice.
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Martin is the creator of Insomnia Land’s free insomnia sleep training. His online course uses CBT techniques to teach participants how to sleep better without relying on sleeping pills. More than 5,000 insomniacs have completed his course and 97 percent of graduates say they would recommend it to a friend.