top of page

Anxious, depressed, obsessed… is it nature or nurture?

This is a question that I am sure many of us have thought about and questioned. Do we inherit our behaviors and moods from our parents or are they learned?

We can argue that it is a mix of both because it most certainly is. However, genetically some of us are most definitely set up to lean towards certain mental health concerns. We will discuss a few genes that are involved in mood and behavior, some of the personality traits that attribute each, and most importantly, what we can do to lesson some of the potential ramifications of these genes.

Let’s first look at some genes that influence a couple of our neurotransmitters, which are the body’s chemical messengers. They transmit signals from neurons to muscles, or between different neurons. HTR1A is a serotonin modulator and the DRD genes have a role in modulating our dopamine levels. The goldilocks principle applies to all neurotransmitters, you don’t’ want too much or too little, each can influence health and mood issues. You need that balance between them.

Serotonin is responsible for our mood regulation and has a strong role in our sleep behaviors. High serotonin levels are very rare and are typically caused by medication. Low serotonin levels can cause irritability, anxiety, depression, and sleep issues. Adequate serotonin levels are necessary for proper sleep-wake cycle as serotonin is needed to produce melatonin and melatonin needs to rise at night to trigger us to go to sleep. HTR1A is a gene that modulates serotonin levels and if you have a certain variation of this gene, you are at an increased risk of having lower serotonin levels. Aggression, anxiety, poor self-esteem, panic, and obsessive-compulsive disorders along with insomnia can all be signs of low serotonin. Getting adequate protein, specifically the amino acids tryptophan and phenylalanine are imperative for the synthesis of serotonin. Zinc, Magnesium, and Vitamin B6 all act as co-factors in the production of serotonin. Exercise and increased sun exposure can help with serotonin levels as well.

Dopamine is responsible for our feeling of pleasure as a part of our brain’s reward system. But just like with serotonin, you want balance. Too much or too little dopamine can be a cause for concern. Too much dopamine can cause anxiety and sleep issues. If you are super task oriented, have a type A personality, or consider yourself a worrier you may have a variation of the DRD genes that cause you to have high levels of dopamine, sort of that extended excitatory state. It can also make you super focused and give you the ability to get a lot done.

On the other hand, if you have another variation of the DRD genes you have a tendency for too little dopamine which can cause you to be a constant reward seeker. You may have issues with binge eating, comfort eating, alcoholism, gambling, and increased risk of opioid dependency. These are people that usually have addictive types of behaviors and may even be those thrill-seeking people, you know, the ones who like to jump out of airplanes or off cliffs. Those are typically people with lower dopamine levels. On the positive side, these are people who don’t stress too much and have far less anxiety than those with high dopamine levels. Depending on which variation you have, there are lifestyle factors that can help. Stress management, increased physical activity, meditation, and getting outdoors can help. Adequate protein, especially the amino acid tyrosine can help increase dopamine levels. Having adequate fatty acids, choline, zinc, magnesium, and manganese can help with the metabolism and detoxification of all neurotransmitters. Again, you want the goldilocks approach to neurotransmitters, not too much and not too little, you want them just right!

Next, we will look at the CACNA1C, BDNF and ANK3 genes. These genes all have a role in brain neural development, connectivity, motility, and excitability.

Certain variations of the CACNA1C gene can present with increased risk of depression, anxiety, interpersonal sensitivity, and obsessive-compulsive thoughts for some. The strange thing about this gene is that the same variation affects men and women differently. If you are a man, you are at an increased risk for depression, but a women will have a decreased risk of depression. If this sounds like you then good sleep hygiene is imperative to allow for the detoxification of the brain, a focus on magnesium containing foods and a supplement may be necessary if magnesium levels are low. Focusing on vagal nerve stimulation with things like humming, chanting, and gargling may help mitigate these feelings.

The BDNF gene is responsible for the survival, development, and growth of neurons in the brain. If you have a certain gene variation your BDNF level will be lower and you may be more likely to suffer from PTSD, ADHD, and depression. The good news is that there are ways to increase BDNF. Endurance exercise, meditation, and breath work can all increase BDNF levels. Making sure you are consuming adequate polyphenols, which are antioxidant like substances found in plants, can help protect the brain.

The ANK3 gene has a role in neural connections in the brain and if you have a certain gene variation you are at an increased risk for bipolar tendencies due to that altered connectivity in the brain. Decreasing social media and electronic stimulation, focusing on stress management, increasing exercise and time outdoors, mediation and good sleep all can counteract that alteration in connectivity.

Looking at your unique genetic profile can help guide us on where we can focus to help stabilize neurotransmitters and balance your mood.

There are a few things we can all do to start to improve our mood and focus on our mental wellbeing:

· Eat a well-balanced diet with adequate protein and a variety of plant foods

· Get consistent exercise

· Spend time outdoors with sun exposure

· Focus on stress management – meditation, breath work, gratitude journaling, hobbies, spending time with friends & family

· Get adequate sleep

If these lifestyle changes are not enough and you need additional guidance, a healthcare practitioner who specializes in analyzing your genes along with lab values and your personal situation is needed to customize a personal nutrition and lifestyle plan with targeted nutritional strategies,vitamins, minerals and supplements such as adaptogenic herbs that can help with mood regulation.

Reach out to me at Decoding Nutrition Answers and get your FREE 15 min exploratory call to find out if analyzing your genes could help you improve your mood and your overall well being! I am are here to help!

Disclaimer: The purpose of this blog post is not to act as a personal healthcare professional to any reader and is not meant to directly or indirectly diagnose disease, dispense medical advice, or prescribe the use of any products or services as treatment for sickness or disease. This information is for educational purposes only. You should always cooperate with a licensed health professional of your choice with the goal of creating optimal health. Please consult your physician prior to implementing any of the strategies mentioned in this or starting any diet, exercise, or health program—especially if you are pregnant or nursing. Any application or use of the information, resources, or recommendations contained here is at your own risk.


bottom of page