Insomnia’s predominance differs with gender

Illustration by Sarah Butler

Logan Bogert, Contributing Writer

Illustration by Sarah Butler
Illustration by Sarah Butler

A graduate student’s research recently concluded that females may be more predisposed to developing insomnia over males.

Mackenzie Lind received her bachelor’s of science from the University of Scranton before attending VCU to pursue her interest in addiction and neurobiology. Lind is currently in her third year of the M.D.-Ph.D. program at VCU for clinical and translational sciences with a concentration in psychiatric, behavioral and statistical genetics.

“I’ve always been interested in sleep because it’s an area where we know very little still,” Lind said. “You think of all the advances we’ve had in other areas like medicine and physiology but there’s so little that we understand about sleep and particularly disturbed sleep in general.”

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 30 percent of adults have symptoms of insomnia while 10 percent have insomnia so severe it interferences with their daily lives.

Lind examined a database of pre-existing data from the Virginia Adult Twin Studies of Psychiatric and Substance Use Disorders. The VATSPUD has data on approximately 7,500 adult male and female twins that Lind was able to utilize in her research.

Lind said nobody had looked at the sleep items in the VATSPUD, but by using the data from twin studies, researchers are able to examine differences in people who share the same DNA. Examining twins helped Lind see how genetic and environmental factors affected certain traits, like sleep.

“Our big and probably the most interesting finding is that within the final model I saw that insomnia appears to be more heritable for women,” Lind said. “That means theoretically that genes may be playing more of a role for women than for men in terms of developing insomnia.”

Lind’s findings suggest that analyzing family history regarding insomnia in women could be beneficial.

“None of this is proof per se; it’s evidence that there may be these differences,” Lind said. “Being able to elicit sex differences may be really important within research because we do find that men and women differ.”

Lind said her next step it to publish a follow-up paper looking for genetic overlap between insomnia and depression, insomnia and general anxiety disorder and insomnia in relation to other disorders.

Photo by Pilar Curtis
Photo by Pilar Curtis

“I’m trying to see how much the genes and the environment overlap between insomnia and other physiatrist conditions like problematic alcohol use and antisocial personality disorder as a contrast,” Lind said. “We tend to see that insomnia and depression seem to coincide a lot.”

The overlaps that Lind is examining are not limited to only women, although she said the sample from the VATSPUD has shown that there are sex effects for depression as well.

“What’s unique is that the data set, VATSPUD, is a big longitudinal study so that’s what allowed me to be able to detect these sex differences because we could pull data across multiple time points. We had two time points for each individual,” Lind said. “When you have multiple time points you can kind of get a better idea about the true endorsement of those items because you can separate out some of the error that might have occurred. You can get better estimates with better time points.”

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