Can Insomnia Be Inherited?

willA new study presented at Sleep 2009, the 23rd Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Studies, suggests that insomnia may be inheritable. The study of 1,436 eight- to 16-year-old twins found that the same genes that impact depression and anxiety affect adolescent insomnia. Study results are consistent with the results of similar studies connecting insomnia to depression and anxiety in adults. Shared genetic effects suggest a probable genetic link between the three disorders.

According to an online article posted on the Science Blog, lead author Phillip Gehrman, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, said researchers had expected to find a sleep-specific genetic indicator and were surprised to instead find a shared indicator with depression and anxiety. A number of previous studies have indicated a causal connection between insomnia and depression/anxiety. Chronic insomnia can lead to the development of depression or anxiety, and depression or anxiety can cause insomnia. The discovery that the same genetic effect links all three conditions sheds new light on their interconnectedness.

Periodic sleeplessness is normal, generally lasting only a few days and going away on its own without treatment. However, more intense levels of insomnia lasting several weeks can be triggered by stress. Such chronic insomnia will not go away without treatment and can cause serious short- and long-term health problems when left untreated. If you or your child exhibit chronic insomnia — sleep problems that last for more than a week — you should be screened for depression and anxiety. Likewise, those diagnosed with depression or anxiety may also need to be treated for insomnia. 

In another study reported at Sleep 2009, cognitive behavioral therapy was shown to help alleviate chronic insomnia. By learning to identify thoughts and patterns that interfered with sleep, nearly 60% of study participants aged 14 to 81 were able to alleviate insomnia and decrease or stop using sleep medication. Even when depression and anxiety exacerbate insomnia, researchers found cognitive behavioral therapy to be an effective method of treating chronic insomnia. To find out more about cognitive behavioral therapy, visit the Marks Psychiatry website.

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