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Can’t Sleep? Blame it On Your Genes!

31 Aug 2020

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Most of us experience either acute or chronic insomnia at some point in our lives. However, we tend to overlook this issue until it becomes severe. This is because we believe that it is an unavoidable aspect of our modern, fast-paced lifestyle. However, insomnia can have a serious impact on our overall health as it increases the risk of a host of physical and mental ailments including obesity, heart diseases, diabetes, blood pressure, depression and anxiety. In most cases, it is brought on by bad lifestyle choices and poor sleeping habits. But, is there more to the problem? Is insomnia hereditary and should you be concerned about the prevalence of this condition in other members of your family? We’ll take a closer look at the link between insomnia and genetics and find out if there’s really a connection.  

How Genetics Affects Insomnia 

Insomnia has long been associated with irregular sleep-wake schedules, poor lifestyle choices and high levels of stress. However, in the last few decades, scientists started to suspect that insomnia could have a genetic component but the scale of their research was limited. Their suspicions were confirmed when a genome-wide analysis [1] of insomnia in 1,331,010 individuals found that insomnia has a partially heritable basis. This study implicated 956 genes in 202 areas of the genome which are linked to insomnia. Interestingly, there was also significant overlap between the genes implicated in insomnia and those for depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, coronary artery disease and type-2 diabetes which suggests that insomnia is strongly related to these disorders. 

Management Options For Hereditary Insomnia 

Genetic research into insomnia is still in its early stages and it will take at least two decades for these discoveries to make their way into clinical practice, especially therapies. Currently, a hereditary insomnia disposition doesn’t require any drastic change in treatment methods. The treatment method for insomnia differs from one patient to the next as it depends on a variety of factors, including the severity of the condition and their overall health status. Patients are first evaluated to rule out medical and psychological causes for their insomnia. As a general rule of thumb, the first line of treatment for insomnia is a combination of lifestyle changes and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). 

Lifestyle Changes 

Lifestyle changes include following regular sleep and waking times and avoiding large meals, caffeine and alcohol before bedtime. Regular physical exercise also plays an important role as it reduces anxiety and depressive symptoms and helps to increase sleep quality and quantity. Make sure that you limit your workouts to the daytime as vigorous exercise just before bedtime can aggravate your insomnia. Studies [2] show that exposure to blue-wavelength light from electronic devices before bedtime can exacerbate insomnia so put away your phone and switch off your TV at least one hour before you go to bed. You can listen to soothing music or spend some time in meditation to relax your mind and body and prepare you for sleep.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia helps to identify behaviors and thoughts that cause or aggravate sleep problems. Once these are identified, they can be replaced by habits that promote sound sleep. For instance, if you suffer from insomnia, lying in bed even though you’re awake becomes a habit which results in poor sleep. The CBT technique of sleep restriction [3] reduces the time you spend in your bed. This leads to mild sleep deprivation which makes you tired the next night – this will increase the likelihood of you falling asleep quickly. This effectively eliminates your habit of lying awake in bed and once your sleep improves, you can go back to your regular sleep timings. 

Other Techniques To Overcome Insomnia

Yoga

Yes, we’ve already touched upon the importance of exercise for anyone who seriously wants to know how to get rid of insomnia. However, yoga warrants a separate mention as it is often recommended by psychologists, sleep therapists and doctors as a tool to lower stress levels, boost mental focus, and improve sleep quality. When using yoga for sleep, try to find a yoga style that is gentle rather than fast paced, including plenty of meditation and breathing exercises or pranayama. These controlled and slow movements help to build focus and clear the mind, which has an extremely relaxing effect. 

While yoga sessions will help keep you centered throughout the day, it may be a good idea to practice some of the most relaxing postures shortly before bed time. This could include poses like the child pose or corpse pose, as they are among the most relaxing. 

Massage Therapy

Almost everyone regards a good massage as incredibly relaxing, so it’s surprising that not as many people respond to the question ‘how to get rid of sleeplessness?’ with ‘why don’t you get a massage?’ Massage therapy can be extremely helpful at promoting relaxation and reducing feelings of pain and anxiety, making it easier to fall asleep and get better quality sleep. 

It may not always be practical to visit a spa, but massage therapy can even help if you want to know how to get rid of insomnia at home. You can try a self-massage using massage oils or essential oils that are known to have sedative effects like lavender. Just make sure to always dilute essential oils before using them on your skin to avoid any unpleasant reaction. 

Melatonin Supplementation

One of the most commonly asked questions is ‘how to get rid of insomnia naturally?’, as people are increasingly wary about taking sleeping pills because of their side effects. A natural supplement like melatonin is the perfect alternative as this sleep hormone is completely natural and is actually vital for quality sleep. Melatonin isn’t just another OTC supplement, but is frequently prescribed by health care providers as a natural sleep medication to treat insomnia. The supplement is known to improve sleep quality within a period of just one to two weeks. 

Paradoxical Intention Therapy

You’ve probably heard that facing your fear is the best way to overcome it. As the name suggests paradoxical intention therapy follows a similar approach to insomnia. This psychological technique is one of the simplest and most effective things you can do if you’ve tried it all and are tired of tweeting out at 3 am ‘how to get rid of sleepless nights’! So, let’s find out how to get rid of insomnia with this technique.

Instead of lying in bed, tossing and turning, and trying to get sleep, try to stay awake for as long as possible, perhaps reading a book. You’d be pleasantly surprised at how hard it becomes to stay awake. This is because insomnia can be a bit like sexual dysfunction, wherein your anxiety about performance affects your performance. In this case, worrying about insomnia and not being able to sleep makes it harder to fall asleep. Attempting to do the opposite therefore helps you relax and makes it easier to fall asleep. 

Insomnia is a curable condition. Medications such as sleeping pills and sedatives may be used to reduce insomnia symptoms when the duration is short but doctors do not recommend the long-term use of these prescription medications due to their side effects. According to sleep experts, almost all cases can be resolved with work and commitment on the part of the individual.  

References:

  1. Jansen, Philip R et al. “Genome-wide analysis of insomnia in 1,331,010 individuals identifies new risk loci and functional pathways.” Nature genetics vol. 51,3 (2019): 394-403. doi:10.1038/s41588-018-0333-3
  2. Shechter, Ari et al. “Blocking nocturnal blue light for insomnia: A randomized controlled trial.” Journal of psychiatric research vol. 96 (2018): 196-202. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2017.10.015
  3. “Understanding CBT-I: Limiting Your Time in Bed.” US Department of Veterans Affairs, www.veteranshealthlibrary.va.gov/LivingWith/Insomnia/Treatment/142,41436_VA

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