How often a person takes daytime naps, if at all, is partly regulated by their genes, according to new research led by investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and published in Nature Communications. In this study, the largest of its kind ever conducted, the MGH team collaborated with colleagues at the University of Murcia in Spain and several other institutions to identify dozens of gene regions that govern the tendency to take naps during the day. They also uncovered preliminary evidence linking napping habits to cardiometabolic health.
Several other features of the study bolster its results. For example, the researchers independently replicated their findings in an analysis of the genomes of 541,333 people collected by 23andMe, the consumer genetic-testing company. Also, a significant number of the genes near or at regions identified by the GWAS are already known to play a role in sleep. One example is KSR2, a gene that the MGH team and collaborators had previously found plays a role in sleep regulation.
Digging deeper into the data, the team identified at least three potential mechanisms that promote napping:
- Sleep propensity: Some people need more shut-eye than others.
- Disrupted sleep: A daytime nap can help make up for poor quality slumber the night before.
- Early morning awakening: People who rise early may “catch up” on sleep with a nap.
“This tells us that daytime napping is biologically driven and not just an environmental or behavioral choice,” says Dashti. Some of these subtypes were linked to cardiometabolic health concerns, such as large waist circumference and elevated blood pressure, though more research on those associations is needed. “”Future work may help to develop personalized recommendations for siesta,” says Garaulet.
Furthermore, several gene variants linked to napping were already associated with signaling by a neuropeptide called orexin, which plays a role in wakefulness. “This pathway is known to be involved in rare sleep disorders like narcolepsy, but our findings show that smaller perturbations in the pathway can explain why some people nap more than others,” says Daghlas.
Saxena is the Phyllis and Jerome Lyle Rappaport MGH Research Scholar at the Center for Genomic Medicine and an associate professor of Anesthesia at HMS.
The work was supported by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, MGH Research Scholar Fund, Spanish Government of Investigation, Development and Innovation, the Autonomous Community of the Region of Murcia through the Seneca Foundation, Academy of Finland, Instrumentarium Science Foundation, Yrjö Jahnsson Foundation, and Medical Research Council.