Author: Cathy Robinson, BScDipNutMed

How Our Genetics Predispose Us To React To Stress

How Our Genetics Predispose Us To React To Stress

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When faced with stress, do you agonise and worry?

Do you panic, your heart racing, your throat tightening with a rush of blood to your head?

Or do you ride the stress wave with ease, relishing the opportunity?

How people react to stress varies widely.

Some see it as an opportunity and may even thrive on stress, while others feel as though they’re engulfed by it and can’t think straight.

Recent research suggests our genetics may hardwire us to react to stress in certain ways.

In this article we’re going to have a look at the COMT gene.

The form of this gene you have inherited from your parents can influence how you respond to and how resilient you are to stress.


Our Amazing Brain Chemicals

When you perceive something as stressful, chemicals are produced in your body which bring about the physiological signs of stress and help you to react.

The neurotransmitters dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline are released which transmit nerve signals between different nerve cells, or between a nerve cell and a body cell, such as a muscle cell.

Neurotransmitters produce specific effects when they bind to receptors on the surface of target cells.

For example, adrenaline causes you to act - to fight, flight or stand still like a rabbit caught in headlights, while noradrenaline is concerned with the physiological reactions like increasing your heart rate and the amount of blood pumped to your leg muscles.

Dopamine is a feel-good chemical, causing sensations of pleasure and reward, but it’s also involved in learning and thinking, influences how easy we find it to pay attention to tasks and affects how we make decisions under pressure.

Dopamine is also used to manufacture adrenaline and noradrenaline, so their levels are closely connected.

After it has produced its desired effect, the neurotransmitter needs to be quickly broken down to turn off the effect, otherwise it would continue stimulating the receptor.


Worriers and Warriors

Our genes direct the activity of proteins and enzymes; in the case of the COMT gene, its role is related to the activity of an enzyme also called COMT.

This enzyme has the job of deactivating the neurotransmitters which have been released in response to stress.

As the COMT enzyme breaks down your neurotransmitters, the physical signs they have produced will start to subside.

Some people have inherited a genetic variant on their COMT gene (1). In some cases the enzyme works slowly, in which case, neurotransmitters won’t be broken down as quickly so their levels will remain higher for longer in the brain.

If the enzyme is hardwired to work more quickly, neurotransmitters will be broken down far more rapidly and so their levels will tend to be lower.

The enzyme directed by the COMT gene is particularly important in an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex where it co-ordinates and organises information coming from other areas of the brain.

It’s also involved with personality, planning, abstract thinking, emotion, short-term memory and the inhibition of certain behaviour.


  • Worriers

Reduced clearance of neurotransmitters because the COMT enzyme is working slowly will result in higher levels of dopamine in the brain.

Such people often have a lower pain threshold and an increased sensitivity to stress.

They will tend to suffer from anxiety when in stressful situations and will run through events and scenarios over and over in their mind.

These people are inclined to be less extroverted and may be described as ‘worriers’.

On the plus side worriers often have a better memory and attention to detail.

They are usually able to concentrate better, stay alert, solve problems, order complex thoughts and foresee consequences, meaning they perform better on complicated tasks - as long as they stay calm.

Other characteristics of worriers include a generally higher IQ and when not stressed they’re typically even tempered.

However, this is lost in periods of high stress, when the increase in dopamine causes anxiety and interferes with the ability to think clearly.


  • Warriors

A genetic predisposition towards increased COMT activity will lead to decreased dopamine levels.

This is connected with a higher pain threshold and an increased capacity to deal with stress.

These people are called ‘warriors’.

The downside of decreased dopamine levels is such people usually experience a reduction in their cognitive performance in non-stressful environments.

They actually perform better under stress, when the body has higher levels of dopamine, and less well when not stressed.

Think of a high-performing executive, staying calm and thriving under stress and needing the presence of stress to function optimally.

Under non-stressful conditions they have a hard time staying focused.

Warriors are prone to mood swings, depression and anger and they tend to be impulsive.

They may crave stimulants to boost dopamine levels.

It’s thought ADHD is more common among warriors because ADHD has been linked to low dopamine levels (2).


COMT and Self Image

The way our COMT gene predisposes us to react can impact on our self-image, too.

Those who are warriors typically see themselves as resilient, thick-skinned and successful.

However if we feel we don’t handle stress well, that in itself can leave us feeling weak-willed, guilty and we will often be hard on ourselves.

Humans are complex, however, and the two categories of worrier ad warrior are fairly simplistic - the interaction between genes and behaviour is extremely complex.

Other genes and nutrients also impact on your neurotransmitter levels.


Worriers and Stress

If you know you are a worrier, it’s important you have access to a range of techniques to help you deal with stress.

This way you can lower the negative effects stress can have on your health.

Relaxation techniques such as mindfulness, meditation and yoga can help focus your mind and body.

Deep breathing exercises can help counter the physiological stress response.

Exercise is a great stress buster, and it also releases endorphins.

Because stress uses up a great deal of B vitamins, as well as vitamin C, you’ll want to ensure you are taking in plenty of these nutrients from sources like legumes, seeds, nuts, green leafy vegetables and fresh fruit.

The COMT enzyme needs magnesium in order to function, so it follows those worriers with reduced COMT activity would benefit from ensuring their magnesium intake is adequate.

Magnesium is found in green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and beans.

A warm bath containing Epsom salts can be extremely calming.



Your genes produce proteins which dictate how your body functions.

Even tiny alterations in genetic coding can influence the body in a myriad of different ways.

Genetic testing can inform you of your individual genetic tendencies, known as polymorphisms, which can tell you how your body is primed to react and therefore how to maximise its function.

If you would like to explore your own genetic individuality, a consultation with a Personalised Health practitioner at Amchara will provide you with a nutrition and lifestyle plan completely unique to your own genetic makeup and life history, all designed to optimise your health.

Appropriate functional tests tailored to your circumstances may also be recommended.

Get your free introductory 360° health consultation.

We’re dedicated to providing you with both insightful information and evidence-based content, all orientated towards the personalised health approach.

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Are you a worrier or a warrior?

Have you discovered any useful strategies to deal with stress?

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