Are you a life long bad sleeper?
Do others in your family sleep like babies while no matter what method you try, you lie awake without fail night after night, getting just a few hours sleep each night?
Until recently, insomnia was considered a purely psychological complaint triggered by stress, grief or sleep disruption as a result of shift work or jet lag.
But now doctors are unravelling a genetic explanation of why at least one-third of people have intermittent or constant sleep problems, and you might just have what scientists are calling the insomnia gene.
The condition is applicable to those who lack the “comfort genes” required to get a good night's sleep, and challenges previous thinking that insomnia is a purely psychological problem.
Those with the insomnia gene are immune to feelings of warmth and relaxation, the very things that send the average person off to sleep within 15 or so minutes.
This group of people is genetically engineered to maintain a state of alertness. Of course this presents a playing field for sleep problems, and as such those with the insomnia gene lack the ability to sleep for prolonged periods of time, and instead sleep in short bursts through the night.
How Do You Know if You've Got the Insomnia Gene?
If you often find it difficult to get comfortable, and soon as your head hits the pillow find that you are fussing over the position of the duvet and your sleeping position, then you are a potential candidate.
There are, however, other kinds of insomnia genes. For example, some people may experience periodic wakefulness through the night, and others may wake at the slightest sound.
Some people may find they sleep for a few hours then find themselves ready to leap out of bed at 4am, only to be struggling with energy by lunchtime. In total, researchers believe there could be six or more types of insomnia linked to genes.
Is the Insomnia Gene Hereditary?
Eus van Someren, head of sleep research at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience and one of the global experts leading the drive to identify the genes, says that insomnia genes originate from our early human ancestry.
In early human tribes, one or two members would be relied upon to stay awake and guard the community from attack during the night.
Professor van Someren says unexplained sleeplessness seldom affects children, but seems to arise during adulthood, for reasons that are not understood, yet the problem often runs in families, making a genetic link a high probability.
Is There a Cure?
Some of the relevant genes have already been identified in experiments on mice at the Medical Research Council’s mammalian genetics unit. This means that in years to come it will be possible to develop drugs to block the effect of the chemical signals the genes produce.
Professor van Someren explains, “One of the most interesting discoveries is that some insomniacs seem to have a diminished capacity to judge comfort.
If you put materials with different temperatures on their skin, they seem to give random answers about whether they like it or not. Feeling warm and comfortable is essential in falling asleep”.
What You Can Do Until Then
For those who don't suffer anxiety or depression, or work shifts or have a sleep-affecting diet, yet have experienced insomnia for many years, the insomnia gene is a real possibility. Unfortunately, however, a cure is some way off.
Moreover, scientists still don’t know how many biological processes are involved in falling asleep, nor the genes involved in each. So in the meantime the only thing you can do is improve your sleep by developing a healthy pre-bed routine, and creating a lifestyle and physical environment conducive to better sleep.