What Is The DEC2 Gene And How Does It Impact Your Sleep?

close up DEC2 gene blue dna strand
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The phrase “genetic mutation” is music to the comic book reader’s ears.

By contrast, the words “gene” and “mutation” in the same sentence can elicit fear from the gullible, nervous ninny who likes things just the way they are: normal.

To bridge the gap between comic book junkies and down-to-earth skeptics, science has discovered a mutation in the gene DEC2 in humans that grants its carriers the power to “out-wake” their enemies.

I know. I know. You’d rather summon category-5 hurricanes like Storm from the X-Men or excuse yourself from awkward Disco-themed parties with the power of invisibility like Sue Storm from the Fantastic Four.

In my defense, I never said that science discovered a mind-bending genetic mutation — just one that might keep you up at night.

If you’re intrigued by the DEC2 gene, along with the inner workings of your body and mind when it comes to the elusive science of sleep, then this article is for you.

DISCOVERING THE DEC2 GENE

Once upon a time, an elderly woman asked a sleep scientist for help.

This was sometime in the aughts when the woman was getting four to five hours of sleep each night.

She had noticed the same sleep patterns in her grandchildren and worried that they would grow up to be sleep-deprived individuals who were always craggy in the mornings and had difficulty functioning in the daytime due to minimal sleep.

After studying the genomes of this family of short sleepers, the scientist discovered a genetic mutation that inhibited the production of orexin in their bodies.

In case you didn’t know, dear reader, orexin is a neuropeptide that regulates arousal and wakefulness in humans.1

Perhaps you’ve heard of narcolepsy?

In case you haven’t, narcolepsy is a neurological disorder caused by deregulated levels of orexin. It’s characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness, cataplexy, hypnagogic hallucinations, sleep paralysis, and disturbed nocturnal sleep patterns.2

For a vivid example of narcolepsy, check out the fifth season of “Rupaul’s Drag Race” where a drag queen named Jinkx Monsoon keeps drifting off to dreamland at random hours of the day. Better yet, check out this short compilation of Jinkx’s best sleepy moments.

Before I go on, I should clarify that the DEC2 gene and narcolepsy are mutually exclusive. In other words, if you carry the DEC2 gene, this doesn’t mean that you’ll be guaranteed a spot in the Narcolepsy Hall of Fame, so to speak.

It just means that you’ll need less sleep than others. And by less sleep, I don’t mean poor sleep. I just mean less sleep.

woman yawn stretch in bed

HOW DOES THE DEC2 GENE MUTATION WORK?

The DEC2 gene is a genetic variant found in about 10% of people that inhibits the production of orexin.

As mentioned above, orexin is a neuropeptide that modulates arousal and wakefulness in humans.

When DEC2 inhibits transcription of the genetic code into messenger RNA (mRNA) — a single-stranded RNA molecule that complements one of the DNA strands of a gene — this decreases output from the genes responsible for creating the peptides OX1 and OX4 that regulate sleep/wake patterns.

Without these two factors to activate or repress other proteins that are involved with sleep/wake cycles, there would be no regulation at all within your brain’s internal clock system.

Get it?

No?

Let’s see… How can I explain this in layman’s terms?

Well, let me ask you: Have you ever taken ibuprofen for your headaches?

If so, it might behoove you to know that ibuprofen’s also an inhibitor3 not unlike the DEC2 gene.

Ibuprofen reduces pain, fever, swelling, and inflammation by blocking or inhibiting the production of cyclooxygenase COX-1 and COX-2 in your body.4

(Why it’s pronounced i-BEE-profen as opposed to i-BUH-profen is beyond me. I’ll leave this headscratcher to the grammar snobs.)

If I’m still making as much sense as a toddler who’s discovered language for the first time, then it’s probably best that I let the sleep scientist who helped the family of short sleepers give you the rundown:

WHY SLEEP RESTRICTION IS COUNTERINTUITIVE

I should point out that in her TedTalk (above), “What Genes Tell Us About Sleep,” UC San Francisco neurology professor Ying-Hui Fu, Ph.D., isn’t making a case against the DEC2 gene.

She doesn’t quite argue that those who carry it suffer from poor quality of sleep than those who don’t carry this gene and follow relatively normal sleep/wake patterns.

In other words, there’s nothing wrong with you if you carry the DEC2 gene. You can still catch some blissful ZZZs albeit at different times of the day or night compared to most people.

On a different note, Dr. Fu argues that sleeping less to gain more time to do things can lead to an undesired outcome.

One of the reasons why sleep restriction is counterintuitive and harmful to your physical well-being and mental health is that it puts you at risk of serious medical conditions, including obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Not to mention, it shortens your life expectancy (yikes!)5

“You simply cannot sleep less to be more,” Dr. Fu says. “But you can sleep well to do better.”

And what does “sleeping well” mean, you might ask?

Well, it’s different for everyone.

For the busy entrepreneur who might say something like “I’ll sleep when I die,” this can be a crazy, self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, humans can survive without food more than they can without sleep.

Rather than subordinating sleep in the name of productivity, it’s important to prioritize it as much as possible.

If you don’t know where to start, take 30 minutes of your time to cover the basics of sleep at our bespoke Sleep Collection in the Archive.

From chronotypes to sleep paralysis, you’ll soon find out that sleep — that unsung hero that accounts for thirty percent of your entire life can do wonders for your mental health and is a fascinating subject to explore.

  1. Davis, JF. Choi, DL. Benoit, SC. (2011.) Orexigenic Hypothalamic Peptides Behavior and Feeding – 24.5 Orexin. In Preedy, VR. Watson, RR. Martin, CR (eds.) Handbook of Behavior, Food and Nutrition. Springer. pp. 361–2. ISBN 9780387922713.
  2. Mahlios, J. De la Herrán-Arita, AK. Mignot, E. (2013, Oct.) The autoimmune basis of narcolepsy. Current Opinion in Neurobiology. 23 (5): 767–73.
  3. News Medical. Ibuprofen Mechanism. Updated August 11, 2021. https://www.news-medical.net/health/Ibuprofen-Mechanism.aspx
  4. Medical News Today. What to know about ibuprofen. Updated August 11, 2021. https://www.news-medical.net/health/Ibuprofen-Mechanism.aspx
  5. United Kingdom National Health Service (NHS UK). Why lack of sleep is bad for your health. (2018, May 30.) https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sleep-and-tiredness/why-lack-of-sleep-is-bad-for-your-health/
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