As a Proper sleep coach, Lauren Hoogs has worked with her fair share of clients who have tried making lifestyle changes, only to fall back on the fact that their parents had these same sleep issues, leaving them resigned to the fact that they will, too.
“They then assume it’s hereditary and that there isn’t much they can do about it,” she explains. “But what isn’t considered is that you often share environments and sometimes behaviors that your parents have had. There are people who are hardwired to have more active minds and that can be related to sleep issues as well. That seems to translate from generation to generation, which can give the illusion that sleep problems are hereditary when it’s really just behaviors.”
Below, we dive into the science behind how our genes can indeed affect our sleep, followed by evidence pointing to the agency we have to fix things.
In a 2018 sleep study (1) published in Molecular Psychiatry, researchers conducted genome-wide association studies (GWAS) and identified specific genes that can trigger the development of sleep problems—specifically insomnia, which has a “partially heritable basis” resulting from variants on chromosome 7. They also discovered a genetic link between insomnia and specific psychiatric or health conditions, namely depression and type 2 diabetes, respectively.
Certain researchers have estimated that 35% of those with insomnia have a family history of it, with the mother being the most commonly affected family member. (2) However, because sleep is affected by so many factors, it’s difficult to definitively pinpoint a genetic attribution.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea Syndrome (OSAS)
The relationship between genetics and OSAS has also been studied, (3) with researchers estimating that the hereditary component hovers around 40%, with the remaining 60% attributable to environmental factors. This explains why around 43% of children with OSAS have at least one relative with comparable symptoms. (4)
There is a genetic basis behind one’s propensity to sleepwalk, which typically takes place during deep sleep (stage N3). In fact, one study (5) found that the rate of sleepwalking for a child without parents that do is 22%, compared to 45% when hereditary.
While genetics may play a role in our risk factors for certain sleep disorders, nothing is predestined. Lifestyle plays a major role in whether or not these genes express themselves.
“I’ll often hear clients say…’I was born this way’ or ‘I have the same issues as my mother/father,’” explains Kelly O’Brien, another one of Proper’s sleep coaches. “Sometimes that can be a helpful frame of reference, but it can often make a client feel doomed to a fate of poor sleep and create resistance or reluctance to investigate what personal habits or behaviors may be contributing to magnifying any genetic predisposition.”
“I’ll often hear clients say…’I was born this way’ or ‘I have the same issues as my mother/father.’ Sometimes that can be a helpful frame of reference, but it can often make a client feel doomed to a fate of poor sleep and create resistance or reluctance to investigate what personal habits or behaviors may be contributing to magnifying any genetic predisposition.”Kelly O'Brien, NBC-HWC
“It’s true,” adds Hoogs. “I’ve worked with people who almost give up because of this belief. They don’t think they have any control when really, they do. I don’t blame them though. We are taught that our genetics are our fate.”
Take Obstructive Sleep Apnea, for example. As mentioned above, the genetic component has been estimated at around 40%, meaning the remaining factors (weight, alcohol/tobacco use, allergies) are entirely within our control. (3)
“Let that sink in,” encourages Hoogs. “Because that means that around 60% of whether you get sleep apnea or not is within your control. I hope that brings a sense of hope and control to people. I do know of people who have lost weight and then have been able to stop using their CPAP machines.”
Here’s a list of tangible sleep solutions within our control that both Hoogs and O’Brien recommend:
Adult sleep coaching
Anyone who wants to get better sleep with the personalized guidance, support, and accountability of an expert trained in behavioral patterns, sleep habits, and strategies for change would benefit from sleep coaching.
READ MORE: 4 Ways A Sleep Coach Can Help You
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBTi)
Although sleep coaching incorporates cognitive and behavioral practices for sleep improvement, they are not the same for two key reasons.
For one, CBTi is focused on the treatment of insomnia disorder and, as such, is delivered by a licensed sleep psychologist. On the other hand, sleep coaches do not diagnose and instead focus on the present challenge to create behavioral change and improvement for things like difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, waking up too early and being unable to get back to sleep, and getting non-refreshing sleep.
Another key difference is the relationship between the coach/mental health professional and client. CBTi is more of a directive therapeutic process in which the sleep psychologist guides the client, whereas coaching is more of a partnership in which the coach tailors and drives the process in collaboration with the client.
This is a tactic O’Brien regularly encourages her clients to adopt when they have trouble sleeping. It involves testing the validity of a thought in order to help disarm its power.
“While someone may also share their mother’s eye color or love of music, an exploration of differences can be useful to dispel the notion that genes are fate 100% of the time. Then, we can get more specific about a client’s own sleep profile, needs, and desires in order to examine what impact stress, food, and other lifestyle factors may have and strategize around what’s working and what needs to change.”
When our bodies react to acute (short-term and quickly passing) or episodic (related to a particular event) stress, there’s an increase in sympathetic nervous system activation. When this occurs, our autonomic nervous system (ANS) releases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol that circulate blood to vital organs and muscles. (3)
Our heart rate increases, breath quickens, muscles tense, and beads of sweat form as a “fight or flight” response, which evolved as a survival mechanism to enable people to quickly react to life-threatening situations.When this occurs before bedtime, it can run interference with sleep onset (the ability to fall asleep) and sleep maintenance (the ability to stay asleep).
That’s why active stress management is so important for better quality sleep (and quality of life).
“I’d say 90% of my client sessions involve working on building stress toolkits to help calm the nervous system and signal to the body that it’s time for bed,” explains Hoogs. “To see the benefits, it takes consistency and must be something a person enjoys.”
For actionable strategies, refer to our guide on stress + sleep.
“90% of my client sessions involve working on building stress toolkits to help calm the nervous system and signal to the body that it’s time for bed. To see the benefits, it takes consistency and must be something a person enjoys.”Lauren Hoogs, NBC-HWC
When it comes to foods and drinks that negatively impact sleep quality and sleep patterns, most people immediately think of coffee and other caffeinated items like dark chocolate and black tea. But what you may not know is that there’s a slew of other less-well-known foods that can mess with your ability to fall asleep and get enough sleep. Luckily, there’s also a group of foods with impressive health benefits that can help.
Cultivating an evening routine
We hear a whole lot about morning routines that help facilitate a more productive day—whether it be exercising, drinking a full glass of water, meditating, or having a healthy breakfast. But in order to set yourself up for a good start to the day, you have to invest in the end of the day, too.
“I can’t stress the importance of an evening routine enough,” explains Hoogs. “Even if you fall asleep easily and simply have trouble staying asleep, this behavior is a catalyst to supporting a healthy body. It signals to your body that it’s time to sleep and that it’s safe to do so, also allowing the body time to properly deregulate so it can get to work while you’re asleep.”
Hundreds of positive human clinical studies on the general population show that various natural, safe supplement ingredients support sleep in two major ways:
- Directly impacting sleep quality or quantity (physical)
- Indirectly supporting sleep by reducing everyday stress and promoting a sense of calm and relaxation (emotional + behavioral)
Knowing how to identify signs of a sleep disorder and seek expert support
Refer to our list of six common signs and symptoms to learn more. While it’s by no means exhaustive, it is a good starting point to help understand the potential causes of fatigue (i.e. low energy) and Excessive Daytime Sleepiness, or EDS (i.e. fighting to stay awake)—all of which are signs that it’s time to consult a sleep specialist. Included on the list are symptoms of:
- Chronic insomnia
- Insufficient Sleep Disorder
- Periodic Limb Movement Disorder (PLMD)
- Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)