Mental wellbeing is a key component of, and inseparable from, our overall health. Our mental wellbeing is not only affected by our life experiences, family history, and socioeconomic condition, but it is also influenced by our diet, biological factors and brain chemistry. And of course, genetics plays a big part as well. Many genes play important roles in influencing various aspects of mental wellness. This month, I provide an overview of two genes that impact our stress and memory. You may have heard about the “Worrier/Warrior” gene, COMT. Some people carry a version of the COMT gene which means they’re more likely to be a worrier who thinks things through, but can also stress out dwelling on things. Other people carry the version of this gene that makes them more likely to be a risk-taking warrior, that resists stress, but can also have issues with memory or cognitive performance. I also review the DRD2 gene, which acts in the dopamine pathway to help regulate memory. Both of these genes (and many others) are tested as part of our LoveMyHealth™ DNA panel, so check out your report to see what your DNA says about you, and what actions you can take to work with your genes to achieve a healthy balance.
Stress is a normal part of everyday life. Regulated by the nervous system, it helps us respond to any form of external or internal stressor, including acute stress, trauma, or more chronic adversity. Some stress can be healthy, even beneficial, in moderate amounts. However, when stress resilience is poor, it can interfere with both physical and mental wellbeing, including our cognitive performance. Genetics plays a role in altering our ability to respond to stressful situations. For example, The COMT gene, often referred to as the “warrior/worrier” gene, encodes the COMT enzyme, which metabolizes and detoxifies neurotransmitters and other catecholamines (like estrogen). Those with lower COMT enzyme activity tend to have higher dopamine levels, and the ‘worrier’ phenotype. While ‘worriers’ often have an advantage in processing information and do well on tasks requiring memory and attention, they can also be more vulnerable to high stress. ‘Worriers’ can enhance their COMT activity with natural products such as magnesium, they can increase dopamine clearance with vitamin C, and they can decrease dopamine production with natural products such as L-theanine, chamomile, and lemon balm, or via lifestyle changes to reduce stress including mindfulness, meditation and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Those with higher levels of COMT activity, and therefore lower dopamine levels, are more likely to have the ‘warrior’ phenotype. While ‘warriors’ tend to have better stress resilience and an advantage in the processing of aversive stimuli, they may also experience reduced memory, cognition, and mental task performance. ‘Warriors’ can reduce their COMT activity with natural COMT inhibitors such as quercetin, green tea, and caffeine, or they can promote the production of dopamine with cofactors such as zinc, vitamin B6, and folate.
Our memory refers to our ability to store, retain, and remember information. Memory is an extremely complex psychological processing system, with several working parts involved in encoding and recalling memories. There are also different types of memory, including short-term memory, which helps you recall recent experiences, and long-term memory, which allows you to remember that conversation you had a year, or even a decade ago. Our genetics play a key role in determining the strength of our memory consolidation and recall, as well as our attention span. For example, DRD2, not to be confused with Luke Skywalker’s robot friend, is a gene that encodes the Dopamine Receptor D2 – a protein that regulates the action of dopamine within the brain, and ultimately affects memory and cognition. Those with certain genetic variants within the DRD2 gene are more likely to have lower levels of dopamine in the brain, which can negatively impact cognition and memory. Luckily, natural products such as zinc, folate and vitamin B6 can improve dopamine neurotransmission, and supplements such as L-Tyrosine (a precursor of L-DOPA, which is converted to dopamine) can also be taken to enhance dopamine levels.
As you can see from these two examples, not only can our genes influence how we feel, but understanding what our genes are doing and how certain tweaks to our diets or supplement regimen can support their normal activity can go a long way in maximizing our overall health.