The Cortisol Problem | Part 1 – Stress & Genes

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Every day we are all subjected to stress. If we don’t learn to handle it, we can quickly reach a point of burnout.

It is common knowledge that stress weakens the body and puts you at risk for certain diseases.

There are several different kinds of stress and each one has a different ways of coping with it.

Everyone responds differently to the various stressors in our daily lives, but the end result is the same for everyone: Nervousness, anxiety, and overall discomfort.

All of these things contribute to worsened social dynamics and lower working efficiency.

Let’s look at the most critical aspects of stress, how it functions, why it puts our wellbeing at risk, and what genes are linked to stress.

What Is Stress?

Any change that induces physical, mental, or physiological tension is generally referred to as “stress”.

When the present situation exceeds our ability to handle it, stress is the result.

Stress is often perceived to be that everyday tension we all feel. This type of stress can actually be categorized as “constructive stress”.

As a matter of fact, we need stress in order to perform at our best, but issues arise when stress factors become excessive.

This may be the product of a heavy emotional load, a significant loss, or a series of mild, consecutive stressors that we are unable to recover from because they occur often.

When we reach our physiological optimum, optimal stress leads to optimal efficiency.

After that, stress grows and our efficiency decreases proportionally.

People can consciously intensify stress levels and many people actually do that.

For instance, this can happen if we invest our negative thoughts and worries in the stress factors.

“I’m not good enough”,  “I look silly doing this and that” or “This is not going to end up well for me”, are common thoughts.

The psychological mechanisms that occur inside of us begin to work against us, and we begin to experience the well-known stress symptoms as an end result.

However, this is just one aspect of stress, as there are other factors, such as genetics,

The Genetic Response

It is important to point out that perception and tolerance to stress can also be linked to your genes.

The catechol-O-methyltransferase gene, or COMT for short, is one of the genetic factors that influences stress tolerance.

This enzyme is in charge of degrading catecholamines including dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine..

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that carries various signals between nerve cells, and it plays a role in the transmission of pain/stress signals across the body.

So, this enzyme may be one of the determining factors of how we perceive pain and stress.

Too much or too little dopamine can impair cognitive function, so we need to find a healthy balance.

Dopamine levels increase when we are stressed.

Because of this, if you generate more dopamine, you can perform poorly under stress.

If you generate less dopamine, you would do better since your dopamine levels are close to optimal.

When it comes to COMT, gender can be another factor.

This is mainly because estrogen suppresses the COMT enzyme, meaning that the activity of this enzyme in the prefrontal cortex in biological females is significantly lower than in biological males.

What this means is that biological females, by default, are closer to optimal dopamine levels, as opposed to biological males

So, while there are many variables that affect our ability to cope with pain and stress, at the end of the day, it’s all about how you RESPOND to your perception of stress, which will determine your outcome.

This means that the stress response is not all automatic and can be controlled and regulated.

In part 2 of this article series, we’re going to give you our BEST actionable tips to manage stress.