The Worrier Gene

By Maureen Schwehr, NMD
Director of Integrative Services

Stress is ubiquitous in our society. How we respond to stress has a big impact on our physical and emotional wellbeing. Stress is almost always an initiating factor in a crisis. For years, I have suspected that some of us are genetically set up to have stress impact us more than others. With advancements in genetic testing, we are beginning to get a better understanding of how and why this happens. In 2013, The New York Times published an article about the “Worrier” gene—the gene that codes for the COMP (catechol-O-methyl transferase) enzyme. This enzyme breaks down epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine in the brain.

Worrier vs. Warrior

There are two variants of this gene. One variant is referred to as the “Worrier” gene; it breaks down catecholamines more slowly. The second variant is referred to as the “Warrior” gene; it breaks down these neurotransmitters more quickly. Those with the slow breakdown Worrier variant tend to do well in school and work, but they worry. Under low-stress situations, this variant may provide an advantage. The higher levels of catecholamines allows for better focus and memory. Individuals with this variant often score higher on IQ tests. However, when put under pressure, they do not break down these stress hormones as quickly and they can become overwhelmed. Long-term stressors have a bigger impact on the mental and physical health of these individuals.

The Warrior variant codes for a quicker breakdown of catecholamines. Warriors tend to do better when under pressure. Stress increases their catecholamine levels, which improves their focus, but they can quickly break these down and return to a state of low activation. They get the benefit of the stress without the catecholamines lingering to create longer-term stress. Warriors are able to let go of stressful events faster.

Genetic Testing & A Healthy Stress Response

At Sierra Tucson, our genetic testing includes an analysis of the COMT gene. This has proven to be helpful in allowing our residents to better understand why they respond the way they do to stressful events. Studies have shown that people with the Worrier variant can do better under stress with training. Knowing how an individual’s body breaks down stress neurotransmitters provides our multidisciplinary team with a framework for identifying what is happening biochemically. Furthermore, we’re able to tailor each resident’s treatment plan in order to give him or her skills needed for a healthy stress response.

In practice, I have noticed that individuals with the Worrier mutation often choose professions and situations that have an elevated level of stress. Increased catecholamines can be addictive. They often get by until an additional stressor pushes them over the edge. One resident came to Sierra Tucson after a relationship ended. This individual had a job that involved 10–12 hour workdays, and health problems started to ensue. Once the relationship ended, the stress of the breakup was overwhelming and alcohol consumption increased, eventually resulting in alcohol dependency. When we reviewed the genetic test results and I explained the Worrier gene to the resident, it helped the individual to see how this pattern developed.

When the Worrier mutation is present, it is very important that individuals maintain balance. Sierra Tucson offers many ways in which residents can find effective relaxation techniques. For this particular individual, yoga and shiatsu massage were helpful ways to decompress. We performed some basic nutritional tests and found that there was a deficiency in Vitamin D and evidence that B12 levels were low. Alcohol use also depletes other important B vitamins including B1 (Thiamine), B2 (Riboflavin), B3 (Niacin), B6, B12, and Folate. The B vitamins are important co-factors needed to create our hormones and neurotransmitters. Deficiencies in B vitamins are associated with increased depression, anxiety, and fatigue. We provided nutritional support for the individual in the form of a high-quality B complex and Vitamin D3. In addition, I prescribed a concentrated lavender formula called Lavela that has been shown to decrease anxiety. It helps the body to stop overreacting to stressors and I have found it to be helpful for residents who have the COMT mutation.

It is very human to blame ourselves when we are overwhelmed by stress. Testing for mutations such as the COMT gene helps our residents understand how their life choices can impact their biochemistry in a way that either supports or undermines their health and happiness. By the end of treatment, the individual’s continuing care plan included herbal and vitamin support for mood, a daily routine that would incorporate yoga, and a goal to find a job with less demands and hours.

To read The New York Times article on the Worrier gene, click here.