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Problems sleeping? Your genes can point to individualized solutions

Your genes could play a role in why you aren’t sleeping well. Genes interact with your life – such as stress, caffeine, light coming through your window at night.  Exploring your genes related to sleep disorders may help you fix your sleep problems.

What is sleep and why do we need it?

“Why do we sleep?” turns out to be a more difficult question to answer than you would think.

We are asleep for about a third of our lives. All animals, both big and small, sleep. So you would think that scientists would know exactly why and how sleep works…

Instead, we have almost as many questions about sleep as we have answers.

Let’s look at the definition of sleep from a prominent sleep medicine textbook: “Sleep is a recurring, reversible neuro-behavioral state of relative perceptual disengagement from and unresponsiveness to the environment. Sleep is typically accompanied (in humans) by postural recumbence, behavioral quiescence, and closed eyes.”[ref]

Yep – big words for laying down, closing your eyes, and going to sleep.

The important thing here, though, is what goes on in the brain while you sleep. While your body is inactive (hopefully), your brain is doing some pretty cool and weird stuff while you sleep. Plus, there are different metabolic processes going on in your body while you are asleep.

Why is sleep so important?

While you sleep, your brain consolidates memories — it makes the things that you learned during the day stick in your brain. This has been known for a long time and is something that researchers frequently experiment with.[ref]

Recently, researchers experimented with just decreasing certain stages of sleep and showed that the neuroplastic changes to the brain in learning happen specifically during deep sleep.[ref]

Studies of sleep deprivation show there can be devastating consequences.

  • For most people, sleep deprivation causes a decrease in speed and accuracy in tests for attention, working memory, processing speed, short-term memory, and reasoning.[ref]
  • One-third of accidents in a survey of commercial truck drivers were caused by drowsy driving due to sleep deprivation.[ref]
  • According to the NTSB, going >20 hours without sleep is equivalent to driving legally drunk. And your risk of being in a car crash goes up 3-fold![ref]
  • This pretty much sums up the rest of the effects of sleep deprivation: ‘studies have shown that short sleep duration is associated with an increased incidence of cardiovascular diseases, such as coronary artery disease, hypertension, arrhythmias, diabetes, and obesity, after adjustment for socioeconomic and demographic risk factors and comorbidities.'[ref]

Stages of sleep:

When you sleep, your brain goes through different periods of activity. These are categorized into slow-wave sleep and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.

Slow-wave sleep can further be broken down into deep sleep and light sleep. About 50% of sleep time (in adults) is light, non-REM sleep.

Most of your deep sleep comes during the early part of the night, while the latter half of the night has much more REM sleep.[ref]

What causes you to feel sleepy?

We feel the need to sleep each night due to two causes:

  • our natural circadian rhythm – and –
  • increased homeostatic sleep drive

The homeostatic sleep drive is what researchers call the build-up over the course of the day for the need to sleep. This is mainly driven by a build-up of adenosine in the brain, which is then cleared out during sleep.

Adenosine is part of the ATP (adenosine triphosphate) molecule used for cellular energy. The ATP molecule stores energy in its bonds and releases energy as the bonds with phosphate are broken. As you use energy over the course of the day, you build up adenosine in the brain.[ref]

Interestingly, caffeine makes you feel more awake by blocking the adenosine receptors, thus making your brain think that not as much adenosine has built up.

The body’s circadian rhythm is the 24-hour built-in molecular clock.  Many different processes in the body occur at different times of the day based on the circadian clock. For example, the enzymes that you produce to break down food are driven by the timing of your normal eating patterns. You may notice that eating dinner several hours later than normal doesn’t always digest as well.

We (all of us humans) are diurnal, which means our circadian rhythm is set up for being up and active during the day and sleeping or inactive in the dark.

Yep, we are flexible, and people can change over to work the night shift. But that change can come with health consequences, more for some than others.

The genes that control the core circadian rhythm can affect sleep quality as well as mood and cognitive function.

Related article: Circadian rhythm genes and mood disorders

Sleep Overview Genotype Report:

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Lifehacks for improving sleep:

Eliminating Light at night:

One small thing that will make a HUGE difference in sleep and circadian rhythm function is to block blue light at night.

Our modern environment is full of light at night and especially in the blue wavelengths from LED bulbs, TVs, and phones. The blue wavelength (~480nm) is the exact wavelength that resets our circadian genes each morning. When you expose yourself to light in the blue wavelengths at night, it messes up your circadian rhythm and decreases your production of melatonin.

Your best bet for blocking the blue wavelengths at night is blue-blocking glasses. Look for ones that block 100% of blue light.

Alternatively, you could go with shifting the lighting color in your home after dark.  There are color-changing bulbs as well as low-watt bulbs with a more yellow hue – often called candlelight bulbs or Edison bulbs.

You also want to decrease the overall brightness of your environment at night. So shutting off bright overhead lights and switching to lamps that contain the Edison bulbs will help. Make sure you also shut off your electronics (TV, laptop, cellphone, tablets) a couple of hours before bed as well.

Sleep in true dark:  Make your bedroom as dark as possible for sleeping. Dim light from street lights can suppress melatonin production. Get some blackout curtains or shades for the windows, and cover up all the little glowing lights on any electronics.

Cooling off at bedtime:

Temperature is also important in sleep. Your body expects the temperature to drop when the sun goes down. Keep your bedroom as cool as you comfortably can at night.[ref]

There are also new options on the market for cooling your whole bed with a water-cooled mattress topper.

Melatonin Supplements (if needed)

Melatonin levels fall as we age, so if you are older, you can assume that you are making less melatonin at night than you used to.

Supplemental melatonin is available over-the-counter in most countries. If you aren’t used to taking melatonin, look for a supplement that is low-dose (1mg or less) and timed-release.  Read more about supplemental melatonin.

Saffron Extract:

A six-week-long placebo-controlled trial found that saffron extract (15.5 mg/day) was effective for sleep. The study participants taking saffron had increased sleep time, improved ease in falling asleep, and improved sleep quality. [ref]

Restless leg syndrome cures

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Related Articles and Genes:

Circadian Rhythms: Genes at the Core of Our Internal Clocks
Circadian rhythms are the natural biological rhythms that shape our biology. Most people know about the master clock in our brain that keeps us on a wake-sleep cycle over 24 hours. This is driven by our master ‘clock’ genes.

Restless Leg and Periodic Limb Movement Disorder: Genetics and Solutions
Twitchy legs, restless sleep…  That urge to move your legs at night or being woken up with your leg moving rhythmically — both take a toll on sleep quality. And good sleep is foundational for overall health and wellbeing.

Genetics and Teeth Grinding (Bruxism)
Bruxism is a condition where you unconsciously clench or grind your teeth. This can occur when sleeping (sleep bruxism) or while you are awake. Bruxism can cause wear on the enamel of the teeth and even cause teeth to crack. Additionally, people with bruxism may have jaw pain, headaches, migraines, or sleep disorders.

How to log in to 23andMe and download raw data
Step-by-step instructions on how to download your raw data from 23andMe

About the Author:
Debbie Moon is the founder of Genetic Lifehacks. Fascinated by the connections between genes, diet, and health, her goal is to help you understand how to apply genetics to your diet and lifestyle decisions. Debbie has a BS in engineering from Colorado School of Mines and an MSc in biological sciences from Clemson University. Debbie combines an engineering mindset with a biological systems approach to help you understand how genetic differences impact your optimal health.