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Fitting Into Your Genes Part I

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Published in the Humboldt Independent on June 30, 2020

While we’ve seen some creative spelling variations on protest placards in the news lately, what you are about to read is not about that quarantine spare tire that may be accruing around your midsection, but rather about the emerging science looking into what you can learn about your health based on your genetic variants.

Human beings have about 25,000 genes expressing traits and characteristics as units of hereditary information passed from parent to offspring. They come in pairs and you get one of each from each of your parents. The majority of them are identical from human to human, but when they vary they show up as different physical traits as benign as eye color or as scary as susceptibility to disease.

Too much or too little Catechol-O-Methyltransferase may have a major influence on how you respond to and handle stress.

Ever since the entire human genome sequence was mapped 20 years ago, scientists have had the opportunity to study the function of many specific genes, as well as what their variants may imply. One of the most studied genes is known as COMT, for Catechol-O-Methyltransferase, the enzyme it produces.

This enzyme is responsible, among many other things, for regulating neurotransmitters in the brain. Too much of it or too little of it may have a major influence on how you respond to and handle stress.

Neurotransmitters such as epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine are what enable us to be alert and efficient cognitively while under natural stress, and, in the case of dopamine, to experience pleasure. Studying for your Genetics exam, delivering a complicated presentation to your boss, or remembering everyone’s beverage on the table of 8 you’re serving are all activities requiring high levels of mental focus, or, in a sense, “good stress“.

It is the job of COMT to break these chemicals down once they have done their job and rid the body of the resulting waste products. When all is running smoothly, you respond to the stress appropriately and ace your exam. When the test is over, ideally the neurotransmitters are released, having completed their good work, and your natural state of calm is restored.

Worriers vs. Warriors

However, in about 30-35% of people who have a genetic variant for COMT that does not supply enough of the enzyme, the neurotransmitters remain in the system and manifest as the more negative hallmarks of stress such as nervousness, irritability, elevated heart rate, etc. It can take up to four times as long to break down the neurotransmitters if you have this variant. People with this variant are sometimes known as “worriers”, and have received a copy of the variant gene from both parents. On the upside, worriers tend to be able to respond to stress more readily and perform well in high-pressure tasks.

In another 30-35% of the population, the COMT gene overproduces, and you may suffer from lack of energy or struggle to rise to the occasion of taking that exam. In this situation, neither parent passed along the variant COMT gene. Sometimes known as the “wild type” or “warrior”, those without the variant can be prone to less advantageous characteristics such as lethargy and depression, but they also enjoy more emotional stability in general.

Understanding how we are genetically programmed to handle stress can help us ride this wild wave that is COVID-19.

The rest of the population receives the variant gene from one parent but not the other and, as expected, experience a more balanced reaction to stress than either the worriers or the warriors.

Why this is relevant now is that the Covid-19 pandemic has put us all under a type and level of stress perhaps not experienced before and understanding how we are genetically programmed to handle stress can help us ride this wild wave.

The effects of quarantining, being an essential worker, trying to decipher the daily barrage of facts vs. fake news, not to mention the ever-present fear of actually contracting the disease, have put everyone into some kind of chronic stress.

Worriers may be very anxious and find it hard to sleep. They may be hyper-vigilant and go into mental overdrive trying to solve the many problems the virus has inserted into our lives.

Warriors, on the other hand, may shut down in response to excess stress and fall into depression, irritability, and anger. Warriors may not be cleaning out decades worth of junk in their garages or knitting baby blankets for the entire population of the world.

Do either of these extremes sound like you? It stands to reason that everyone’s COMT expression is out of balance at the moment, and even for those with one worrier variant and one natural warrior gene, life has been topsy turvy for at least four months.

If you have had your DNA sequenced by Ancestry or 23andMe you have all the raw data you need to learn about your own COMT gene and its effects on other health issues such as cancer risk, mental illness, pain tolerance, etc.

But it’s complicated. When you order a report analyzing your DNA the results could show variants whose effects amplify or mitigate the simple scenarios described above. Consultation with a knowledgeable provider will help interpret your results and may go a long way toward explaining all kinds of health issues.

The vagus nerve

In the meanwhile, noticing your response to the stress of a pandemic through the lens of chemical reactions can help remove blame and judgment from the conversation in your head. Plus, there is at least one simple strategy to soothe both a COMT-deficient and COMT-excessive brain chemistry: calm the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve has the ability to maintain the body’s naturally balanced state of well-being.

More than any other player in the nervous system, the vagus nerve has the ability to maintain the body’s homeostasis or naturally balanced state of well-being. Originating in the brain stem and linked to the heart, lungs and multiple digestive organs, the vagus nerve is a two-way communication system crucial to the calibration of the body’s nervous system towards the “rest and digest” response. In this relaxed state, the effects of your COMT gene being out of balance can be more easily dealt with, however, they are manifesting.

Once you have forgiven yourself for either reorganizing the whole house to the extent that your partner can’t find anything or on the other hand for lounging about bingeing Netflix for a week straight, because you now know it’s probably just your genetic response to stress, find something to do (or not do) to tone your vagus nerve.

Sing, exercise, breathe deeply, splash cold water on your face, get away from glowing screens, etc. There is a lot of research coming out pointing to the role of a well-toned vagus as crucial to our well-being.

That way, whether the gene fits or not, you will wear it well.

Ann Constantino, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.