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Insomnia May Be A Partly Genetic Condition


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

Persistent insomnia is one of the most common health complaints. Mita Stock Images/Shutterstock

Do you lie awake at night, wishing you could sleep for hours on end? Do you toss and turn, raging against your inability to enter the land of dreams? Worrying about the end of the world aside, your lack of snoozes could be down to your parents and their pesky genetics.

We’re not talking about a few hours of sleep lost here and there, by the way. We’re referring to full-blown insomnia, which can last for months or even years at a time. It has a number of causes, including anxiety, a bad sleeping environment, physical and mental health conditions, and adverse reactions to medication.


There have been hints that there are genetic markers that make someone predispositioned towards suffering from insomnia too, but a new study in Nature Genetics gives more credence to the idea than ever before.

A team from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU) have found seven “risk genes” in a sample of 113,006 individuals that make someone more likely – but not certain – to suffer from insomnia compared to those that lacked the genes. These genes aren’t directly related to sleep patterns, but rather their presence creates an unintended side-effect that appears to trigger sleep loss.

The primary purpose of these genes is two-fold: to read DNA and make RNA copies, and to allow cells to release signaling molecules so that they can communicate with their environment. For some reason, their existence appears to overlap with an increased risk of several conditions, including anxiety disorders, depression, neuroticism, perceived lack of wellbeing, educational difficulties, and insomnia.

The team note that one of these risk genes, MEIS1, has been found on previous occasions to be related to restless legs syndrome and periodic limb movements of sleep. These are characterized by sporadic physical movements, whereas insomnia is of course typified by a disruptive state of consciousness.


Curiously, the risk genes – and the associated insomnia – was more prevalent in men (33 percent of sample) than women (24 percent of the sample). At present, this discrepancy has no known explanation.

“This suggests that, for some part, different biological mechanisms may lead to insomnia in men and women,” co-author Danielle Posthuma, a professor of statistical genetics at VU, said in a statement.

Note: This is not how genetic research works. Genes could hopefully be tinkered with in the future to remove the insomnia-linked ones, though. Perception7/Shutterstock

In short, there’s still a lot we don’t know about insomnia, but this study suggests that genes inherited from your parents play a larger role than previously thought. In several people, it’s likely that their affliction is not a purely psychological condition.

In any case, severe insomnia brings with it a heavy mental and physical toll. If it gets serious enough, you shouldn’t rely on sleeping pills every night – go and see a clinical practitioner to find out what they recommend.


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