Understanding the connection between genetics and sleep could change the way we work

how medical writers can help to combat pseudoscience

A few months ago I started writing an article about sleep, after reading a book called Why We Sleep, by English scientist Matthew Walker. Specifically, about how our genetic make-up impacts our sleep.

For one reason or another, (probably lack of sleep. See also: baby under age one), that article never saw the light of day (or the dark of night, for that matter).

This week I read this article in Stylist magazine about the latest sleep trend, called ‘Chronoworking’. Essentially, the idea that we can learn to work with, rather than against, our natural circadian rhythm (or sleep-wake pattern) – in turn, using this to make the most of our working days.

I’m always looking for ways to a. get more sleep and b. improve my working patterns (particularly since going freelance)… so this seemed like as good a time as any to delve deeper into the subject of genetics and sleep.

Could this be the health trend that would revolutionise my working life?

Sleep and genetics

Here’s something we can all agree on – sleep is an essential component of our daily lives. Yet, while the importance of a good night’s rest is widely acknowledged, the connection between sleep and genetics is perhaps less well known.

We know that humans are genetically programmed with differing sleeping patterns: an evolutionary quirk that could help us unlock those precious 8 hours a night. Research describes ‘sentinel-like’ behaviour in hunter-gatherers, since sleep was essential for survival, yet represented extreme vulnerability to danger.

So, ‘natural’ night owls would stay up late to keep watch, while larks would go to sleep earlier, leaving a much shorter period when everyone was asleep.

Great for natural selection, not necessarily so great for modern life… as I discovered when I spoke to two women about how their natural sleep-wake patterns affect daily life.

Naomie: Obsessed by sleep

As far as personal trainer and mother-of-one Noemie is concerned, it’s very simple: ‘Sleep is a big thing for me. I get obsessed over it. I can’t function without doing everything I can to get a good night’s sleep’.

Unsurprisingly, things are not always so straightforward.

Noemie is naturally awake before 7.30 am and in bed by 9 pm. Her partner is the complete opposite. Given the choice, he would be in bed at midnight and up at lunchtime. He’d stay up, bustling around the house, playing on his phone. And in the morning, he’d sleep in.

Now they have a child, those precious weekend mornings are a weekly trade-off – her self-care time for his. Her workout, for his sleep.

She adds: ‘He works long hours, and he’s so tired. But, he doesn’t make the best of going to bed early’.

The crux of the sleep problem

According to Matthew Walker (who we met above), this is the crux of the problem.

In his book, Why We Sleep, Matthew explains that night owls not only prefer to go to bed late, but may be physically unable to fall asleep early. These same people often dislike being awake early in the morning, their brains not functioning at that time of the day.

Like a cold engine in the morning, they take a long time to warm up.

Cat: Wired for 11am starts

Fifty-three-year-old Cat understands this better than most. She is wired for 11 am starts – although rarely gets one – and 2 am finishes.

Small business owner and mother to two teenage boys, she is the quintessential night owl. ‘I’ve always been like this. He [my husband] thinks I’m an idiot’.

When Cat met her husband Dave more than 30 years ago, she was a student and he had just graduated. ‘He was an incredible musician. Late nights, late mornings, just like me.’ Cat fondly recounts her love of people, good music, and the desire to squeeze every last ounce from the day. Things haven’t changed much: ‘Even if I’ve worked on admin until midnight, I’ll still stay up’.

These days her husband is the opposite. Bed by 9 pm, up at 5 am. Literally, up with the larks.

‘He’s worried about what happens when I get old. I read it everywhere, sleep is the most important thing. But I always feel strong. I don’t feel like I’m letting myself down.’

And maybe she isn’t. After all, perhaps there is very little she can do.

Four things you should know about the link between genetics and sleep

We know that our genes, the DNA sequences inherited from our parents, play a significant role in shaping various aspects of our life – and sleep, it seems, is one of them. There are genes involved in regulating sleep duration, sleep quality, timing of sleep, and even susceptibility to sleep disorders.

So, what should we know about the connection between genetics and sleep? (1)

  1. Chronotype and circadian rhythms

One area genetics play a role is determining a person’s chronotype, or their natural inclination towards being a morning person (a lark) or an evening person (an owl). Certain genes are associated with regulating circadian rhythms, the internal body clock that governs our sleep-wake cycle. Variations in these genes can influence our natural preference for waking up early or staying up late.

2. Sleep duration and quality

Studies have identified certain genes linked to sleep duration, with individual differences in the ideal amount of sleep needed. For example, certain genes are associated with short sleepers—individuals who function well with fewer hours of sleep without experiencing negative effects on their cognitive performance or health.

3. Susceptibility to sleep disorders

Genetics also play a role in determining an individual’s susceptibility to sleep disorders. Conditions such as insomnia, narcolepsy, and restless legs syndrome often have an inherited component.

4. Epigenetics and the influence of the environment

It’s also important to recognise the role of epigenetics (2) in sleep – that is, how your behaviours and environment can affect the way your genes work.

Lifestyle factors, stress, and external influences can modify (or change) the expression of certain genes related to sleep. Understanding the connection between genetics and environment is crucial for developing holistic strategies to promote healthy sleep.

How could this knowledge about genetics help us all get more sleep?

There are many things you could do to work with – rather than against – your genetic make-up to improve your sleep. Here are some suggestions:

  • Identify your own natural chronotype and think of ways to align your daily schedule (where possible) to maximise your productivity during times of peak alertness.
  • Adjust your bedtime timings and routines to complement your genetic sleep tendencies
  • Strive to achieve a consistent sleep schedule
  • If genetically predisposed to being a night owl, consider careers or work schedules that allow flexibility in working hours
  • Implement strategies to minimise the impact of shift work, such as exposure to light and darkness
  • Consider researching any family history of sleep disorders; look out for early signs and seek help if needed
  • Consider using customisable sleep tracking devices to track your own sleep patterns

As research in this field continues, the promise of a future where sleep interventions are tailored to our genetic make-up becomes increasingly tangible. In the meantime, embracing good sleep hygiene practices and maintaining a healthy lifestyle remain key pillars for a restful night’s sleep.

[Please, would you let my sons know?]

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References

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2. Click here

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