Are you a ‘warrior’ or a ‘worrier’? The COMT gene is part of the genetic balance of stress
Stress management is all about healthy lifestyle balance. International Stress Awareness Week (7-11 November) focuses on stress management and campaigns against the stigma attached to stress and mental health conditions. It was established in 2018 by a charity (ISMA.org.uk) to spread knowledge about stress management and wellbeing.
But did you know your genetics influences how sensitive you are to stress? Understanding your nutritional genomics may help you see how you can cope with stress. One underlying factor is the enzyme Catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT). The role of COMT is to break down compounds in our brain, particularly the neurotransmitter dopamine. This is important as dopamine levels influence our decision-making abilities, and the speed at which dopamine breaks down affects responses to stressful situations. A common genetic variant in our COMT gene (which encodes the COMT enzyme) is associated with the ability to clear dopamine from the brain. Research has found that a specific genetic change will cause those people to have a slow-acting COMT enzyme (AA genotype) and typically have higher dopamine concentrations at rest than those with typical COMT (GG genotype) functions.
Dopamine and Memory
Dopamine is vital for our memory. It is believed that there is an optimal level of dopamine at which it is most efficient, with too much or too little dopamine having adverse effects on working memory. Those with the slow-acting COMT genetic have higher dopamine levels, thought to bring them closer to optimum levels for working memory. The good news is that these individuals show improved performance under normal conditions when tested with IQ tests, puzzles, and games. They can better concentrate, reason, solve problems and foresee consequences during non-pressured scenarios.
It may sound like having the slow-acting COMT is the ideal situation and that those with this variant have won the genetic lottery, but there is a trade-off. Although slow-acting COMT individuals may be sharper thinkers when relaxed, this trait can disappear and even reverse its effects when faced with stress.
COMT and stress
As a neurotransmitter, dopamine isn’t only involved in memory. Stressful situations, either physiological or psychological, cause dopamine levels to surge in the brain. This flood of dopamine causes an overload for individuals with the slow-acting COMT enzyme, who can’t remove the dopamine quickly enough. This interferes with their ability to maintain conscious control over decision-making, leading to impulsive decisions.
This has led to some COMT genetic profiling categorising us as either a ‘Warrior’ or a ‘Worrier’. Those with typical-acting enzymes (COMT GG) are Warriors, ready for threatening environments where maximum performance is required. Those with slow-acting enzymes (COMT AA) are Worriers and more capable of strategic planning.
Which COMT gene do you have?
We inherit one COMT gene from each of our parents, so about half of us fall between these two character traits. This means approximately 25% of people carry Warrior-only genes and 25% Worrier-only genes.
Whether we are worriers or warriors by nature, our daily decisions have the power to change our destinies, influencing our COMT activity and cognitive abilities in everyday scenarios. Similarly, our lifestyle decisions can decrease our daily stress levels and increase our cognitive abilities, for example, eating the right foods, exercising and mindfulness. Therefore, knowing your COMT status can help you understand how you respond to stress as part of your unique stress balance, empowering you to manage this more effectively. If you think this would be helpful, please book a nutritional genomics appointment with me, and we can work together to build your stress resilience as part of a healthy lifestyle.