Are you a Warrior or a Worrier?
Recent research has been striving to answer the question of what makes some people perform well under stress while others seem to fall apart. These dichotomies have been labeled as worriers and warriors. And surprisingly, your genes have a significant impact on how you may handle stress.
Think about how you handle stress, do you seem to thrive and power through the task, or do you become easily overwhelmed and flounder? Knowing your genes could tell you exactly why you react this way.
The COMT Gene:
Scientists studying reactions to stress have pointed to the COMT gene as the deciding factor in how you handle pressure. The COMT gene provides instructions for making an enzyme called catechol-O-methyl transferase which is one of several important enzymes that breaks down catechols – a molecule that includes the catecholamines such as dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and also estrogen. It mainly breaks down neurotransmitters in the brain’s frontal lobe, which is responsible for short-term memory, our executive function, and reaction to stress.
In regards to dopamine, its regulation is one of the most important jobs of the COMT gene. Dopamine alters the firing rate of neurons in your brain, too much dopamine can make you more anxious, and even neurotic. Excessively high levels of dopamine can lead to toxicity and mania. When dopamine levels are too low, this leads to an increased risk of depression, substance abuse, anger, and impulsivity. The variant of the COMT gene you possess determines how well you balance dopamine levels in your brain.
The COMT Variants
We each carry two copies of the COMT gene, either an A, G or one of each.
Those who inherit two A alleles are known as worriers. The A allele slows down the enzyme that breaks down dopamine, thus A carriers have more dopamine. These individuals are better situated for executive function, as the brain is able to keep dopamine levels high. Dopamine increases alertness, focus and attention but can backfire if too high.
The second variation are those who inherit two copies of the G allele. Having two copies of the G allele speeds up the enzyme causing a rapid clearing of dopamine from the prefrontal cortex. People with this variant are known as the warriors, ready for risky situations where maximum performance is required. GG carriers may be more susceptible to ADHD and difficulty concentrating.
For those who carry one A and one G allele, the result is an intermediate affect between warriors and worriers.
Warriors and Worriers each account for about 25% of the population, while the remaining 50% are a combination of the two.
Warrior v. Worrier:
In lab experiments, researchers have consistently found that those with slow-acting dopamine clearing enzymes, the worriers, have a higher cognitive advantage than the warriors. The worriers were able to achieve superior executive function, which entails better reasoning, problem-solving, consequence forethought, and concentration.
The warriors on the other hand were left with too little dopamine to perform well in lab tests, the enzymes quickly flushing out too much dopamine for optimal brain function.
But outside of the lab, results were different. A study in Thailand followed nearly 800 students undergoing the Basic Competency Test required for advancing to junior high school. The test takes place over the span of 2 days, testing students on various subjects. In short, it’s a very hard and very stressful test that determines the future of the students that take it- making it the perfect real-world experiment to study the effects of genetic variation on high-stakes competency.
The scientist found that students with the warrior variant performed almost 8% better than students who were worriers. The worriers fell prey to pessimistic thoughts and anxiety when faced with highly stressful situations while the warriors were able to remain calm and collected to work through stressful conditions.
In the case of the Taiwanese students, the prefrontal cortex was flooded with dopamine under the great stress of the Basic Competency Test. The slow-acting enzymes could not keep up with the great amounts of dopamine, causing the brain to falter and not perform up to speed. On the other hand, warrior students could quickly clear the dopamine and approach the test with a clear mind.
There are benefits and disadvantages to being both a warrior and a worrier. And while you can't change your genes, there are steps you can take to better adjust to daily life.
Tailoring your Life to your COMT Variation:
While there are supplements you can take to help your brain better regulate dopamine levels, there are also simple lifestyle changes you can make. Further, if you haven't undergone genomic testing to properly identify which COMT variation you have, you should not take supplements, as this can actually cause harmful side-effects if you mislabel yourself. And more importantly, genes never act alone. It is best to know the other genetic pathways that affect the COMT gene before supplementing.
If you're a worrier:
avoid high protein diets
decompress with massages and yoga
avoid daily high-intensity interval training and other exercises that can raise stress levels
avoid foods that cause higher levels of dopamine, like coffee, chocolate, green tea, and black tea
limit caffeine and alcohol
avoid long fasts or drops in blood sugar
If you're a warrior:
high protein diet will provide more tyrosine which is the precursor for dopamine.
eat foods that give a boost of dopamine, like coffee, chocolate, green tea, black tea, and citrus
exercises that favor high intensity are best
incorporate fasting to raise dopamine levels
How to know if I’m a Warrior or Worrier?
A genomic test, like those offered by the Johnson Center, will be able to tell you if you are a worrier or a warrior, among many other things. Knowing how your genes regulate your stress levels is important in knowing how to change your habits to hack your brain and perform well under stress regardless of if you’re a worrier or warrior. Click here to learn more about genomic testing at the Johnson Center!