Insomnia: A Family Affair

Is a insomnia a heritable trait? Family and twin studies—and my own experience—suggest that vulnerability to insomnia is indeed passed on genetically.

Insomnia is more likely to develop if another family member has it

Insomnia is more likely to develop if another family member has it“How did you sleep?” was my father’s conversational gambit in the mornings of my adolescent years, as regular as his toast and Bran Flakes.

Dad was ill at ease talking about most personal issues, and unwilling to spoil the day with talk of politics, which nightly footage of the Viet Nam war thrust on us at dinnertime and which created friction between us, so he asked about my sleep. My replies were often noncommittal, but that did not keep him from continuing the conversation.

His sleep, Dad would go on to say, was “fair to middling.” And then he would explain: a thunderstorm woke him up and it took some time to fall back to sleep. He woke up at 5 a.m. to thoughts about the day and never got back to sleep. A frightening dream awakened him just after midnight and he had to get up and walk a while before he could fall back to sleep. His sleep was interrupted by too many trips to the bathroom. He offered an insomnia sufferer’s litany of complaints.

But the word “insomnia” never crossed his lips. When he asked the family doctor about his sleep, the doctor – highly respected around our house — assured him that “rest was as good as sleep.” Dad believed this and repeated it many times. “When I can’t sleep,” he’d say, “I just lie in bed and rest.” As if to model good behavior for me and my siblings, who might one day fall prey to the same trouble.

Growing Up

Soon enough the proverbial apple fell, and sleep became an object of scrutiny for me too. It happened when I went away to college. Once there, I switched from major to major, eventually graduating with no marketable skills. But I did embark on a lifelong career as an insomniac.

No surprises there, I found out recently while researching the genetic aspects of insomnia. Having a first-degree relative with insomnia increases the odds that you, too, will have problems with sleep. You’re 7 times more likely to have insomnia than you would be coming from a family of good sleepers, a group of French researchers says.*

I grew accustomed to talk about sleep at the family breakfast table. Years later, when my husband first took me home to meet his parents before we got married, I realized that one of the many ways our families were different was that his parents didn’t talk about sleep. They sat down to breakfast eager for conversation, but were no more inclined to ask us about our sleep than they would be to inquire about our digestion or our breathing.

Of course not, I found myself thinking, looking at the pair of adults facing me at the table, who even in their seventies looked vigorous and alert. Who talks about sleep except people who struggle with it? To become part of this family of good sleepers would be to marry into a different tribe.

*Family studies in insomnia

Author: Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.

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