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Sleep Status: How Much is Ruled by Your Genes?

Each year, to highlight the importance of sleep health, National Sleep Awareness Week is recognized the second week of March. The week closes out with World Sleep Day today, Friday, March 13. Are you curious about how much of your sleep is ruled by your genes? Read on to learn more.

The Power of Sleep

After decades of turning our noses up at the proverbial 8 hours of sleep and power naps, sleep is having a comeback. Resting four hours a night is no longer seen as a trait of powerful CEOs and politicians, but as a health risk.

Poor sleep health can affect mood, mental processing and our risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and depression. Even with all the research showing the health benefits of sleep, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that about a third of Americans still get less than the recommended amount of sleep each night. For people 18 and older, it’s recommended they get seven hours or more of sleep a night. For babies, children and teenagers, it’s even more.

How Your Genes Can Affect Your Sleep

While sleep has been tied to physical and mental health, our genes can shape how much sleep we need each night to be healthy.

Media mogul Martha Stewart and Virgin CEO Richard Branson are among those who boast getting no more than four hours sleep a night, but are highly productive and fit. They may be among the few of us who have genetic mutations that allow them to get less sleep than the average person but can still function day to day. These “short sleepers” are often characterized as optimistic and energetic, in fact.

In 2010, researchers at University of California, San Francisco found that some of these short sleepers have a mutation in a gene called DEC2, which has been linked to circadian rhythm. Since then, our understanding of the genetics of sleep has only increased.

People who have short sleep syndrome, or advanced sleep phase disorder, are in contrast to those who have delayed sleep phase, meaning they can’t fall asleep until the early hours of the morning. They then struggle to make it to their 9 to 5 job.

Recently, a number of other sleep disorders have been linked back to genetics. Some instances of sleep apnea, narcolepsy, snoring and insomnia may be caused by physical symptoms, environmental factors, or your genes.

Scientists have identified at least six genes associated with restless leg syndrome (RSL), and treatments have been developed and approved for use. It’s also no surprise that 40 to 90% of people who have the syndrome also have at least one first-degree relative who also suffers from RLS.

While sleep apnea, and ultimately snoring, is most associated with obesity, smoking, age and sex, there is also a hereditary factor. Having a narrow airway or a propensity to obesity could be in your genes, which makes the likelihood of snoring go up. There are also genetic markers found in the blood, that when coupled with a family history, can greatly increase someone’s risk of the disorder.

The Omics of Sleep

The physiome, which is based on your physical activity such as your heart rate and daily step count, as well as your sleep health, affects your overall health. It’s also one of the omics that helps users to track in their health profile.

By using Apple Health, Fitbit or other personal device, users can track the length and quality of their sleep over time. It can also help researchers use those data points to understand how physical processes interact and to build predictive models for new therapies.

Improve Your Sleep Health

Knowing that your sleep patterns are driven by your genes can’t help you to get to work on time, but there are ways that you can improve your sleep habits.

To improve your sleep health, the National Sleep Foundation recommends:

  • Don’t let your naps extend past 30 minutes.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol before going to sleep.
  • Exercise can improve sleep health.
  • Give yourself access to natural light during the day.
  • Develop a night-time routine.
  • Go to bed and wake up at about the same time each day, even on the weekends.
  • Don’t use cell phones or computers in bed or right before you go to sleep.

In honor of World Sleep Day, get some sleep this weekend--especially if you’re finding yourself still deprived from Daylight Savings Time.

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