The Relationship Between Sleep and Genetics

Psomagen Blog

We all know someone who can run on just a few hours of sleep, and another person who needs more than the recommended eight hours in order to function. While science isn’t entirely sure of all the reasons that humans need to sleep or what exactly the body does during sleep hours, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania (among others) have discovered that the amount of rest we need for physical and mental performance may be up to 80% genetic.

Recent Studies on Genes and Sleep

The study of sleep genetics is still relatively new and developing. Researchers are still asking basic and fundamental questions, such as, “Is there one gene responsible for determining how much sleep your body requires?” “Is the ability to run on little sleep caused by a genetic mutation?” “How many genes are involved in your sleep quality and where are these genes located?”

Science doesn’t have all the answers yet, but some recent studies may shed some light on these subjects and provide the opportunity to advance the field of sleep medicine.

NHLBI Study on Sleep Gene Differences

With one in three adults not getting enough sleep, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) undertook a study on gene differences to explain why some people need more sleep than others. They started by breeding 13 generations of fruit flies that were either sleeping 18 hours or three hours each day. After collecting genetic data, they found 126 variations in 80 different genes that could reasonably be linked to sleep duration, thereby solidifying the theory that sleep and genetics are indeed connected.

UCSF Study on a Sleep Gene Mutation

In 2019, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) set out to discover the extent to which a person’s genes affect the amount of sleep they need. Their study was conducted on a family that reported sleeping less than six and a half hours each night without feeling negative effects. In each member of the family, the researchers identified a shared mutation of the ADRB1 gene. This mutation has been identified as the “natural short sleep trait.” Scientists found that mice engineered with the ADRB1 mutation displayed the same brief sleep patterns as humans with the mutation.

According to one of the researchers involved in the study, the mapping and cloning of this gene was the exciting proof they needed to link the adenosine receptors to sleep regulation and to develop a cure for people with this genetic mutation. While this short sleep trait may not seem like a big problem, sleep deficits have been linked to an increased likelihood of serious health issues, including obesity, diabetes, heart conditions, and many more.

Fortunately, this study makes researchers more optimistic that they’ll be able to develop a drug specifically for these at-risk individuals so they can achieve better, longer rest.

University of Pennsylvania on the DEC2 Gene

Alan Pack and his research team at the University of Pennsylvania’s school of medicine conducted research in 2014 that revealed a mutation of the DEC2 gene to be the cause of different sleep patterns in a pair of twin brothers. DEC2 is responsible for turning off the expression of other genes — including the one that keeps us awake. The mutation of this gene acts much like the ADRB1 mutation and inhibits the DEC2 gene from carrying out its function.

Sleep Needs May Be Linked to Two Regions of Our DNA

In a study published in Molecular Psychiatry in 2014, 47,000 participants from different origin countries were asked to report on the average number of hours they sleep at night. This data was studied in depth alongside a DNA sample from each participant.

The results lead to a hypothesis that the hours a person sleeps are linked to one of two locations on human DNA. Those who slept longer than average were located in the first region, which has been connected to a low likelihood of developing ADHD and efficient breakdown of glucose. Those who slept less than normal were located in the second region, which is a location known for increasing a person’s risk of schizophrenia and depression.

The Consequences of Sleep Deprivation on Your DNA

It’s still uncertain just how many genes and mutations impact sleep quality and to what extent their location in our DNA is to blame. It is clear, however, that DNA can be damaged by the lack of sleep associated with the short-sleep genetic mutation.

Doctors from the University of Hong Kong discovered that those who sleep too little each night (in this case, night-shift workers) experience more DNA damage than others and even lose their ability to repair it over time. With DNA holding the instructions for all of our bodily functions, any damage caused to it is problematic and could result in serious physical and/or mental health complications, such as an increased risk of cancer, diminished psychological health, or impaired judgment.

Sleep Recommendations by Age

To avoid these risks, follow the sleep guidelines for your age group recommended by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the Sleep Research Society, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (found here). They strongly advise that you don’t skip sleep for work, family, or leisure, as a simple one-night sleep deficit can impair your ability to think and perform your responsibilities the next day, put you in a bad mood, and even increase your risk of getting into a car crash.

Find out How Much Sleep Your Body Needs to Feel Rested

Sleep is a universal need that differs from person to person, and there is strong evidence above to suggest that this need is genetically based. As a society, we must abandon our association of sleep with laziness and listen to what the body tells us it needs. This may mean going to bed earlier, waking up later, lessening your workload, or giving up late-night TV. Whatever the case may be for you, you’re sure to find that what might feel like a sacrifice at first will benefit your productivity and health in the long term.

Whether you find it easy to sleep for 10 hours straight or you struggle to sleep for more than six hours each night, you could benefit from knowing your genetic likelihood for certain sleep tendencies. Psomagen can tell you how much sleep your body is likely to need based on genetic sequencing of a small saliva sample. Order our DNA Traits Test on our website today.