Last year I started researching my genes in detail. This mostly entailed running my 23&Me data file through various genetic health reporting systems and researching the most interesting genes listed. One gene caught my eye because it was stated that it had an impact on pain sensitivity. I was having mild nerve pain on my left shoulder and arm which impacted sleep and other activities, so I decided to put some of my focus on this COMT gene.
COMT stands for Catechol-O-methyltransferase, which is an enzymatic process that breaks-down certain neurotransmitters. I have the gene for a slow COMT process. The benefit of my version of this gene is it allows higher levels of dopamine to build up, leading to excellent concentration, creativity, pleasure, and drive in low stress situations. The bad aspect of my version of this gene is a lower tolerance for stress and increased pain sensitivity. (There’s a lot more to it, and you need to take multiple genes into account, but for this discussion let’s keep it simple.)
One nice thing about knowing your genetics is you can sometimes impact how these genes work using simple dietary adjustments. The COMT gene is just such a gene. There are foods that are COMT inhibitors, meaning they slow down the process further. People with the fast version of the COMT gene can consume lots of these foods to slow down their enzymatic breakdown of neurotransmitters. People like me, with the slow version, can instead avoid COMT inhibiting foods to help speed up the process. I decided to try cutting COMT inhibitors to see what would happen.
Exactly as you would expect from the information I read, I found myself much more calm, less anxious, and suddenly much of the nerve pain issues I’d been experiencing decreased. I gauge my pain sensitivity by how much it hurts when I lie down to sleep. Prior to cutting COMT inhibitors I couldn’t lie on my right side at all without triggering uncomfortable pain. When I stay on the dietary changes, I can sleep on my right side without problem. My assumption is that my pain levels are low enough that cutting pain sensitivity is enough to push the pain signals too low to register. (I don’t know why I have this pain. My doctor and the hospital I’ve been going to can’t figure it out.)
The foods I had to cut include: Green Tea, Coffee, Chocolate, and Turmeric. I also avoid green tea extracts, quercetin, rutin, and luteolin, etc., which can be found as ingredients, particularly in supplements. You might notice that all of these are commonly touted for their health benefits. Depending on your genetics, as it turns out, they can be bad for you as well. I was having a cup of coffee or tea every morning along with a piece of chocolate daily. I also like Indian food, which frequently has turmeric. I was non-stop eating COMT inhibitors.
Something I find interesting is I’d always had a love/hate relationship with coffee and green tea. I enjoyed drinking them, and was addicted to having a little every morning, but had a very low tolerance. In the past I realized that green tea made me feel hyped up, even more than coffee, which seemed strange because green tea has less caffeine than coffee. Now I know why. Green tea has some of the strongest COMT inhibitors. It wasn’t the caffeine that was revving me up, it was an abundance of neurotransmitters overwhelming me, which is why I couldn’t tolerate much more than a cup. I also noticed that some decaf coffees made me feel as wired as caffeinated coffee. Now I know why. It was the high amounts of caffeic acid in coffee, not caffeine, that was making me buzz. (Despite the name, caffeic acid has no relationship to caffeine.) I’ve been trying to quit coffee for decades. I referred to drinking a cup every day as being “on the coffee train” to my wife. Any more than a cup and I’d get jittery. Yet, because she made it every morning, I drank a cup every morning. Turns out dopamine is addictive. Drink green tea or coffee and you up your dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine levels, in my case to levels higher than is beneficial. Now that I’m off these morning indulgences I find I still have plenty of energy, I feel more even keeled, and my nerve pain levels have decreased substantially.
I wasn’t sure about chocolate at first. To test it I stopped eating it for a week or two and then ate some every day for a week. Every time I did this the pain returned within a day or two of eating chocolate, and decreased again when I removed it from the diet. This was the one I was saddest about giving up. What’s nice is it seems to take a few days of eating COMT inhibitors before the pain sensitivity increases. That means while I generally avoid these foods, I can still have some chocolate or Indian food or other no-no foods as long as I do so occasionally, just not every day.
I’ve found coffee/tea substitutes I really enjoy. I’ll write something up on them soon.
Let me know if you’d like details on how to determine your own COMT genetic data and I’ll post some detailed instructions.