What Is the COMT Gene? And How Does It Affect Your Health?
Are your genes responsible for your unhappiness? (Part 2): The COMT gene.
Posted Jan 15, 2020
It turns out there are a bunch of genes that can make it difficult for some people to eliminate toxins from the body—toxins from air pollution, pesticides, fragrances, mold, estrogen, parasites, and even stress hormones!
And here, in part 2, we'll talk about the COMT gene.
The COMT gene
What is it?
The COMT gene provides instructions for making an enzyme called catechol-O-methyltransferase. An estimated 20-30% of Caucasians of European ancestry have a COMT gene variation which limits the body's ability to remove catechols (a specific type of molecule that includes dopamine, norepinephrine, estrogen, etc.) by 3-4 times. This "slow" variation of the COMT gene is called Met/Met, AA, or +/+. COMT is also associated with greater levels of cortisol and HPA axis dysfunction (which is largely responsible for the body's ability to calm itself and de-stress).
Because of the effects that COMT has on hormones, it directly affects stress reactivity, health, and well-being. Interestingly, those with this gene appear to experience both negative and positive emotions more strongly. For example, those with the COMT gene variation Met/Met tend to be more neurotic and have lower stress resiliency. However, in one study, people with the Met/Met variation generated almost similar amounts of positive emotion in response to a "bit pleasant event" as people with the no variation (Val/Val) did from a "very pleasant event."
What to do about it:
- To support COMT methylation, others suggest people with COMT Met/Met also take SAMe.
2. Because COMT has a hard time removing catechols from the body, it can also be helpful to avoid foods that increase catechols.
- For example, don't over-consume foods that contain the amino acids tyrosine, tryptophan, and phenylalanine (i.e., high-protein foods), as these are converted into dopamine endogenously and trigger catechol release. One study showed that reducing these amino acids can even reduce bipolar symptoms.
- Limiting caffeine can also be helpful, as caffeine can trigger release of catechols. Limiting alcohol is beneficial since alcohol consumption triggers dopamine release. And limit smoking, which may have a negative effect of COMT.
3. It's also key to eat foods that remove excess catachol estrogens from the body and avoid foods and bath products that mimic estrogen.
- Excess estrogen slows COMT and COMT is largely responsible for riding the body of harmful estrogen metabolites—this means a slow COMT can have a cascading effect where more estrogen leads to less COMT activity which leads to more estrogen and so on. That's why it can be helpful to avoid estrogen boosters (e.g., xenoestrogens, dairy, parabens, and possibly soy.)
- Most often it is recommended to eat DIM, cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, or cauliflower, flaxseed, and other foods or supplements that support Phase 2 liver detox (See GST article) and to remove these toxic estrogen metabolites.
4. In addition, COMT is responsible for processing certain phytonutrients (catechol-containing flavonoids). It's key to avoid overconsumption of these phytonutrients so as not to overwhelm a slow COMT, while at the same time keeping antioxidant levels high to limit oxidative damage.
- For example, limit catechol-containing flavonoids including quercetin, rutin, luteolin, EGCG, catechins, Epicatechins, Fisetin, Ferulic acid, and Hydroxytyrosol. This includes foods like green tea, capers, cilantro, berries, and apples (see even more foods here.)
- The following flavonoids don’t have the catechol structure, and therefore eating extra helpings of these may be more beneficial to those with low COMT activity: apigenin, genistein, chrysin, myricetin, and flavones (includes apigenin, tangeritin, chrysin, baicalein, scutellarein, wogonin). So focus on eating more of these foods (e.g., grapefruit, chamomile, onions, parsley, and celery.
5. A few other things to keep an eye on are exercise and calorie intake.
- Exercise requires methylation and increases catechols. So if you have a difficult time methylating because of COMT (or other genes like MTHFR, which are discussed in depth elsewhere), then you might be better off limiting strenuous exercise.
- And fasting can increase catechols, which can bog down COMT. So eating regularly and maintaining blood sugar is essential.
6. Lastly, avoid stress whenever possible.
- This COMT gene variation limits the body's ability to remove some stress hormones by 3-4 times. So stress feels stronger, lasts longer, and does more damage. So be sure to practice stress reduction and self-care.
Note. There are not many known ways to increase COMT activity, so avoiding anything that inhibits COMT activity is key to recovering from COMT-related issues.
Other things to do
Regardless of our genes, we can all benefit from improving liver detox, which helps reduce stress on the body. We can do this through any of the aforementioned techniques but also by supporting other genes that aid Phase 2 detox. For example, cruciferous vegetables, citrus foods, and bioactive compounds induce UGT enzymes, which aid Phase 2 detox. Animal studies also suggest benefits of other foods and nutrients, including dandelion, rooibos tea, honeybush tea, rosemary, ellagic acid, ferulic acid, curcumin, and astaxanthin.
When I discovered I had issues with Cytochrome P450 genes, GST genes, MTHFR, and COMT, it didn't scare me—it gave me hope. I had been struggling with strange health issues my entire life—issues that eventually snowballed into a year-long unidentifiable, unexplainable sickness that I just couldn't kick. When I found out I had these toxic genes, I finally had a path forward.
I started doing research, learned all the things I just shared with you, and started living and eating for my genes. I moved away from a polluted city, stressful lifestyle, and moldy apartment. I stopped going to the gym and instead went for short, calming walks. I stopped eating vegetarian and instead ate a variety of meats to ensure I was getting enough B vitamins. And I stopped consuming green tea and other "healthy veggies" that were bogging down COMT and instead ate potato, citrus fruits, and veggies that support detox.
Finally, I turned a corner. One by one, my symptoms started to ebb. And as long as I stick to my gene-healthy diet and lifestyle, I feel better each day. That's the power that eating for your genes can have on well-being.
*To learn more about how I manage stress associated with having this COMT gene, check my stress detox program.