Genetic discoveries are being made at a tremendous pace, and I’m excited that genes related to many sleep disorders are among those finds. All this new genetic research may one day play a role in helping doctors understand who is at risk and perhaps help tailor a remedy for them. Some genes are already being tested for through common consumer DNA test kits.
So far, research has found that narcolepsy, the disorder of extreme excessive sleepiness, has been mapped to a particular gene (HLA-DQB1*06:02). Restless legs syndrome has a strong genetic tie—60% of cases are thought to be familial, and four genes have been linked to the disorder.
Outside of diagnosable disorders, tendencies such as being a night owl or morning lark are linked to specific, testable genes (perhaps as many as 15 or more). Even our ability to deal with inadequate sleep has recently been mapped to a gene. Recently, scientists in San Diego discovered genes that may play a role in the double-whammy problem of insomnia and connected mood disorders like depression.
Where Can You Get Genetic Sleep Tests?
23andMe has already introduced a limited genetic “sleep” report, evaluating two genes that may impact sleep-disruptive limb movements: The BTBD9 gene has been found in people with restless legs, and variations in the ADA gene have been seen in individuals with deep sleep deficiency. Understanding your genetic risk for diseases like restless legs syndrome may help your doctor more quickly diagnose and precisely treat your specific sleep disorder.
The company ORIG3N promises an even more comprehensive look into its clients’ sleep. One of the ORIG3N employees offered me a sneak peak at some of the upcoming tests it plans to offer. Let’s just say, the look at your sleep characteristics promises to be quite comprehensive. ORIG3N is already offering parents the chance to find out if their child needs as much sleep as his peers by evaluating the ARNTL gene, but there’s soon to be much more.
Should you rush out to get one?
Right now, all this DNA information is pretty fascinating, and rapidly moving toward becoming legitimately useful. An ORIG3N test I took in January told me that my ability to acquire new languages is not particularly robust (so true!) because of my FOXP2 gene, my AGER gene status makes me less likely to have skin that shows signs of aging (I make my living off of Doogie Howser comments), my LEPR gene makes me less likely to gain weight (my weight has changed little in 25 years), and I am “gifted” when it comes to my ACTN3 gene’s ability to make protein essential for fast-twitch muscles. This makes me more athletic and probably accounts for my muscular build and athletic abilities. Incidentally, my father was a decorated college football player, so I probably got the old ACTN3 gene from him, and unfortunately the height gene from my mother. Hopefully later this year, I will get similarly detailed insight into my sleep.
I feel quite certain that in the future, this kind of testing will not only help more specifically identify the reason why patients have disturbed sleep, but will also help specifically tailor therapies to suit these disorders. Think of all the money we’ll save on new mattresses, wrist-worn sleep monitors, and sleep-inducing gummy bears. We will know exactly what our problem is, and doctors will be able to treat it accordingly. For now, though, we need to continue to make sleep a priority and do all the sleep hygiene moves we know we’re supposed to do—including knocking off the caffeine early, sleeping in a dark, cool room, laying off screens right before bed—to ensure a good night’s sleep.