Worrier or Warrior? How Your Genes Affect Your Stress Response

Do you ever wonder why some people melt down under stress, but others seem to thrive under pressure? It may not be you, it may be your genes! The prefrontal cortex is that part of your brain responsible for many of the capacities that lead you to succeed in the world; cognitive ability, problem-solving, reasoning, and planning. In order to operate at peak performance, the prefrontal cortex needs a certain level of the neurotransmitter dopamine. That’s where genetic differences in coding for the COMT gene can have a big impact.

Catechol-Omethyl transferase (COMT) is an enzyme that breaks down dopamine. The COMT gene comes in two variants, one that slowly removes dopamine (AA) and another that does it fast (GG). When things are calm and stress is not pumping dopamine into the brain, the slow variant keeps dopamine levels up; and people with this variant function better than those with the fast variety. But when the going gets tough and the brain is flooded with dopamine, those who can remove it quickly (“warriors”), shine, and the “slows” (“worriers”) are left in a puddle of overwhelm.

We know that the long-term effects of stress can be very detrimental to our overall health. When the body is constantly flooded with stress hormones like cortisol, the result is chronic diseases like depression, inflammation, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.


Genetics 101

Let’s briefly go back to high school biology for a refresher. Each person has the same set of genes, about 20,000 in all. The differences between people come from slight variations in these genes, or SNPs. SNPs are “typos” in DNA copying.  

Your body contains 50 trillion cells, and almost every one of them contains the complete set of instructions for making you. These instructions are encoded in your DNA. DNA is a long, ladder-shaped molecule. Each rung on the ladder is made up of a pair of interlocking units, called bases, that are designated by the four letters in the DNA alphabet – A, T, G and C. ‘A’ always pairs with ‘T’, and ‘G’ always pairs with ‘C’.

The long molecules of DNA in your cells are organized into pieces called chromosomes. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes. Chromosomes are further organized into short segments of DNA called genes. If you imagine your DNA as a cookbook, then your genes are the recipes. Written in the DNA alphabet – A, T, C, and G – the recipes tell your cells how to function and what traits to express. For example, if you have curly hair, it is because the genes you inherited from your parents are instructing your hair follicle cells to make curly strands.

Cells use the recipes written in your genes to make proteins. Proteins do much of the work in your cells and your body as a whole. Some proteins give cells their shape and structure. Others help cells carry out biological processes like digesting food or carrying oxygen in the blood.

Cells come in many types, but every cell contains the same instructions in the form of DNA. So how do cells know what to code for? The answer lies in intricate systems of genetic switches. Master genes turn other genes on and off, making sure that the right proteins are made at the right time in the right cells. This is where the science of epigenetics comes in.

What is Epigenetics?

We often talk about our genetic make-up and whether or not we have” good” or “bad” genes. We know that “bad genes” can lead to us having a higher chance of developing a particular disease if our parents are carriers. Scientists have been able to identify faulty or changed genes, but over the last decade we have learned this is not the whole story. As it turns out, it is not just our genes that determine our health, but also environmental factors such as diet, stressors, and lifestyle choices. These environmental conditions have been shown to flip “stop” and “go” signals which regulate every process taking place in our cells.

While the science of epigenetics is unfolding, several gene SNPs such as MTHFR and COMT have been well studied.

Epigenetic Approaches to Managing COMT SNPs

What do we do about our COMT genes? If we’re stuck with the AA variant, how do we learn to deal better with stress? There are a number of approaches that can be helpful. One is thought work.

“Worriers” under stress can fall prey to thinking patterns that are not helpful. They’re likely to become very pessimistic with limited problem-solving ability. And they’re much more likely to be hijacked by anxiety, frustration and anger. Resilience training can help “worriers” find new solutions to challenges, avoid negative reactions and remain confident about overcoming obstacles.

Supplements such as SAM-e (use with caution), magnesium, DIM, Vitamin B-12 and folate can help modulate dopamine and block inhibitors of COMT such as estrogen and homocysteine. It’s also important to avoid excessive alcohol and to manage stress effectively. Perimenopausal women should be aware that estrogen blocks COMT activity, so it’s important to make sure to take care of estrogen dominance.

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Meditation can be very helpful in this situation. It’s been shown to positively affect over 1000 genes! The ideal amount of time is 12-20 minutes. Remember, meditation is a PRACTICE. This means that starting with 12 minutes may be too much. I started with 5 minutes. There are all kinds of apps and devices that can help you with your practice.

For “warriors”, supplements like mucuna and tyrosine can help increase dopamine. ECGC (found in green tea), quercetin and luteolin are COMT inhibitors that indirectly increase dopamine.

Test, Don’t Guess!

It’s important to know which variant of COMT you have before trying any of the recommended supplements. Thought work and meditation have no side effects, but when it comes to supplements, guessing incorrectly can make your situation worse. I strongly recommend working with a trained epigenetic coach who can translate your genetic data and work with you to create a plan to manage stress and incorporate the appropriate supplements.

Dr. Anna Garrett is a menopause expert and Doctor of Pharmacy. She helps women who are struggling with symptoms of perimenopause and menopause find natural hormone balancing solutions so they can rock their mojo through midlife and beyond. Her clients would tell you that her real gift is helping them reclaim parts of themselves they thought were gone forever.

Find out more about working with her at https://www.drannagarrett.com/work-with-me/
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