There is an actual gene, actually a set of many genes, called CLOCK genes which contains the instructions for several proteins that affect our sleep habits and quality. These CLOCK proteins directly impact circadian rhythms, and they interact intimately with micronutrients in surprisingly significant ways.
The CLOCK genes, cleverly named from Circadian Locomotor Output Cycles Kaput, affect everything from personality to glucose metabolism to sleep. But here’s the misunderstood thing about our genetics – people often assume that having a gene = having a clearly inheritable trait. But genetics, and especially the interaction of genetics and nutrients is so much more complicated, especially when it comes to our sleep.
We all know some people are naturally early risers while others love to stay up late. Some people are “good sleepers” and other struggle for high quality sleep their entire adult lives. The truth is that genetics and nutrients affect sleep, but if we understand some of these relationships, the deficits in sleep can be corrected through nutrient repletion, which ultimately affects genetic expression.
The key lies in the fact that nutrients can directly affect whether or not a gene is expressed. In addition, nutrient status can impact how fully that gene is expressed. Sounds counterintuitive but that is because formerly held beliefs about genetics were somewhat flawed. In recent decades, people often assumed you either had a gene or you didn’t. If you had it, there was nothing you could do about it. But now, we know that’s way too simplistic and not how it really works.
Now, geneticists understand that it has just as much to do with how we express a gene, or whether we express a gene, not that we have a gene. Many of us have genes that are not expressed. And one thing that significantly affects gene expression – micronutrient status.
Genes that affect our sleep will be affected by the nutrients available to our cells. In other words, although we can’t change our actual DNA structure, we can change the cellular environment in which our DNA is expressed. Micronutrients can impact our CLOCK genes in many ways:
Vitamin A – Commonly called retinol, vitamin A has a very well-established link to sleep and genetic expression. It directly regulates the expression of genes that determine circadian rhythms. In addition, vitamin A deficiency alters brains waves in a way that makes sleep less restorative.
Vitamin B3 – Commonly called niacin, vitamin B3 plays a huge role in neurotransmitter production, particularly in the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin, and ultimately melatonin which is the hormone produced in the pineal gland that induces sleep. Niacin and melatonin share neurotransmitter pathways and deficiency in vitamin B3 can negatively impact both quality and quantity of sleep.
Vitamin B12 – This vitamin is known to directly impact circadian rhythms and deficiency is an easily correctable way to improve sleep. Its use in sleep-wake disorders has been promising in resetting internal circadian clocks.
Magnesium – This mineral mimics the action of melatonin, the sleep hormone. It activates over 300 enzymes in the body so its impact on sleep is significant. Interestingly, some of the clinical conditions that compromise sleep such as anxiety, restless leg syndrome or physiological reactions to stress (increased stress biomarkers) are treated successfully with magnesium, thus indirectly impacting sleep in a good way.
The interaction of nutrients and sleep is very complex. Testing nutrient status in cells, then correcting any nutrient deficiencies, is a huge step in getting better, more restorative sleep. Good nutrient status can help genetic expression of CLOCK genes in a way that predisposes us to good, easy, restorative, deep sleep.
For more information on the link between nutrients and insomnia, click here.
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Ribas-Latre et al. Interdependence of nutrient metabolism and the circadian clock system: Importance for metabolic health. Mol Metab 2016;5:133-152.
Haspel et al. Perfect timing: circadian rhythms, sleep, and immunity – and NIH workshop summary. JCI Insight 2020;5:e131487.
Rochette-Egly et al. Dynamic and combinatorial control of gene expression by nuclear retinoic acid receptors (RARs). Nucl Recept Signal 2009;7:3005.
Lichstein et al. Vitamins and Sleep: An Exploratory Study. Sleep Med 2008;9:27-32.