Feeling Blue? It Could Be Your Genetics (And You May Be Able to Fix It)
Everyone gets sad sometimes. Feeling blue is a normal part of life—but if you have certain genetics, you may be especially prone to periods of low mood. The opposite may also be true; you may be wired to bounce back from negative emotion faster than most people. According to new research, it all depends on your DNA.
There are several different genes that influence your mood. Some affect your neuroplasticity—and how quickly your brain can adapt to unexpected events—while others govern your emotional resilience, informing whether you’re wired toward a positive or negative response to stress.
Whatever your genetic makeup, there’s a lot you can do to improve your mood. Here’s a look at how your genes affect your emotions, as well as how understanding your genes can help you shift your brain chemistry toward positive emotion.
The Genetics of Mood
It’s common to think of mood as purely psychological. It can feel like your emotions are entirely based on your worldview or how you think about your life.
However, research has revealed that that’s not the case. There’s a strong biological component to your emotional state. Your emotions depend on your brain chemistry, genetics, habits, and even your nutrition.
Here’s a simple example. You may have heard of serotonin—it’s a chemical in your brain that influences mood. Serotonin works on many emotion-related brain pathways, and if your serotonin levels are depleted, you can become depressed.
Many common antidepressants (called SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) boost your serotonin levels in key brain areas, which can lift you out of a depressive state.
But why are people’s serotonin levels low in the first place?
Recent studies suggest that one cause could be genetics. Several genes determine your levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters that regulate mood, and consequently, your DNA has a major influence on your likelihood to become depressed.
3 Genes That Affect Your Mood
Here are three well-researched genes that influence your mood.
Your 5-HTTLPR gene affects how your brain responds to serotonin. Specifically, 5-HTTLPR affects your brain’s serotonin transporters—little gateways that live on the edges of your brain cells. Transporters determine how easily brain chemicals can get in and out of your cells, and how quickly they can travel along pathways in your brain.
If you have the recessive (S/S) version of the 5-HTTLPR gene, your brain’s serotonin transporters won’t process and move serotonin efficiently. As a result, your serotonin signaling may be lower than usual, which can make you more prone to anxiety and depression.
On the other hand, if you have the dominant (L/L) version of 5-HTTLPR, your brain transports and responds to that same amount of serotonin much more readily, and you will have natural resistance to depression, even in difficult situations.
There’s slightly more nuance, too. A 2021 study found that, if you have the recessive version of 5-HTTLPR that predisposes you to depression, you may be fine under normal, happy conditions, but in the face of stress, your serotonin transporters stop working well. As a result, you may be especially prone to feeling depressed when things become stressful in your life.
COMT is another gene that affects your mood. It controls how long your brain responds to dopamine, another important neurotransmitter in emotion.
You may have heard dopamine called your brain’s “pleasure molecule." You release dopamine in response to enjoyable stimuli like good food, positive socializing, attraction to someone, and pursuits you find engaging.
However, dopamine isn’t just about pleasure. It’s also the major brain chemical involved in motivation. Dopamine makes you want things and drives you to pursue them—personal goals, relationships, success, and so on. Optimal dopamine levels can make you a more motivated and engaged person.
Low dopamine does the opposite—you find things less pleasurable and you don’t feel motivated to pursue goals in life, both of which are hallmark symptoms of depression.
Your COMT gene determines how quickly you break down dopamine. Certain variants cause dopamine to stay in your system for a long time, and as a result, you find great pleasure in life’s pursuits and are highly motivated to engage in them.
Other COMT variants can cause you to metabolize dopamine very quickly, which means pleasures feel fleeting and motivation may not last very long. A 2018 study found that depressed people who struggled with motivation were much more likely than healthy people to have certain COMT variants, and that they had lower circulating dopamine as a result.
BDNF stands for brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a beneficial type of protein that your brain makes in certain situations. The BDNF gene has the same name—it controls BDNF production.
BDNF does a few different things that are good for your brain. It increases neuroplasticity, allowing your brain to adapt and change more easily in response to your environment. It plays an important role in learning—high BDNF enhances your ability to synthesize and remember new information.
BDNF is also a major factor in mood. It increases your mental flexibility in response to psychological stress, which can help you make it through difficult times without falling into rigid, negative thinking. On the other hand, low BDNF links to depression, and BDNF continues to decrease as mood disorders worsen.
Your BDNF gene controls how much BDNF you produce. If you’re a high BDNF producer, you’re likely naturally more resilient to depression. If you’re a moderate or low producer, you may be more susceptible to low mood, and you may want to incorporate lifestyle changes that stimulate BDNF production.
Understand Your Genetics to Improve Your Mood
Genetics play a central role in how you regulate emotion, and understanding your unique DNA can help you optimize your mood.
For example, if you have a low-producing BDNF gene variant, you may want to compensate by doing things that boost BDNF production. Cardio exercise like running increases BDNF, as does a low-carbohydrate diet. Early research suggests that certain supplements can increase BDNF as well, particularly polyphenols. If you have a low-BDNF gene, making those changes can leave you more resilient to negative emotion.
Similarly, if you have a low-sensitivity version of the 5-HTTLPR gene and your brain doesn’t register serotonin easily, you may benefit from taking supplements like 5-HTP, which your brain converts into serotonin, and which could lead to improved mood. However, if you have a high-sensitivity 5-HTTLPR gene variant, a 5-HTP supplement may either have no benefit or cause unwanted side effects.
This is why it’s so helpful to know which genes you have. Understanding your genetics allows you to personalize your lifestyle to fit your unique DNA. It takes the guesswork out of optimizing your life.
If you want to better understand how to improve your life, consider our DNA 360 Report. It gives you a full breakdown of key genes that influence your mood, metabolism, cardiovascular health, and more. We also include personalized recommendations for diet, exercise, supplements, and other lifestyle changes that are ideal for your genetics.
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