There are many factors that influence your body’s response to stressful situations. It has long been known that your environment (how you were raised, socio-economic status, education, diet, etc.) plays a significant role in how you respond to stress.
Interestingly, new insights into the genetics of stress response reveal how some of us may be more sensitive to these environmental factors than others, which also sheds light into how some people may be more responsive to lifestyle choices than others to improve their stress response and decrease anxiety.
For example, there has been a lot of research and published literature about the BDNF gene and how it influences stress and resilience, where individuals with a specific variation of the gene may be more sensitive to stress but may also be more responsive to dietary and lifestyle interventions to reverse this sensitivity and perhaps even thrive in spite of stress.
What Is the BDNF Gene?
BDNF is a gene that produces a protein known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (shortened to BDNF). This protein is involved in an important process called neuroplasticity, which is the process by which our brains change their structure and neural connections based on our experiences. Thus, genetic variations that change the structure and activity of the BDNF protein also likely affect neuroplasticity.
This is thought to be why these genetic variations are associated with a heightened stress response. How? Keep reading to learn more.
How Stress Affects Your Body
We all suffer from stress from time to time. Whenever you experience a stressor, the brain’s fear center (the amygdala) alerts other areas of the brain, activating a stress response. The stress response involves the release of stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, which are primarily responsible for the physical reactions to stress we are all familiar with, such as an increased heart rate, sweating, and tensed muscles.
However, what factors trigger a stress response, and how the body responds to stressful situations, varies from person to person.
Part of why individuals respond to stress so differently is because of genetic predispositions that can directly influence their stress response, possibly through influencing the connections between parts of the brain involved in initiating this response.
BDNF and Stress
The connections between the amygdala and other parts of the brain are constantly changing based on our experiences (neuroplasticity).
For example, most of us were scared of the dark when we were young but overcame this fear as we aged. This reflects an actual change in the ‘wiring’ between areas of the brain responsible for how we react to darkness. Thus, neuroplasticity plays an important role in how we identify and respond to stressful triggers throughout our life.
Approximately 33% of us have a genetic variation that is associated with decreased BDNF activity, which subsequently affects neuroplasticity. In multiple studies, these individuals tend to display a heightened stress response, which may make them more sensitive to the effects of stress in general.
Some of these studies included the use of the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), which is a study that exposes volunteers to stress in a controlled environment (usually public speaking in front of an audience of strangers) and then compares how these individuals react to this stress. In one of these TSST studies, college-age adults with the BDNF variant that decreases its activity were significantly more likely to display elevated levels of cortisol than those with the more common form of the gene.
Other studies suggest that these individuals may be at increased risk of anxiety-related disorders, especially in the context of trauma. This may be due, in part, to the predisposition towards a heightened sensitivity to stress.
Fortunately, it also seems that there are things these individuals can do to boost BDNF and thus mitigate this effect.
Genetic Testing for Mental Health
Learning how your genetic makeup influences emotions, behavior, and stress can provide valuable insight into how to better manage your mental wellness.
The Genomind Mental Health Map™ is a DNA-based assessment tool for mental health and wellness that provides an in-depth analysis of your genetic predispositions across the 7 Core Genetic Mental Health Capabilities™, including Stress & Anxiety, Focus & Memory, and more.
BDNF is one of 36 genes that are tested. Individuals with the Heightened Stress Response predisposition linked to BDNF not only learn about their own biology linked to stress, but they are also provided with genotype-based recommendations that boost the BDNF protein and improve stress resilience. In some cases, these individuals tend to respond better to these lifestyle interventions than those with the common genotype.
On the Mental Health Map, this is what those individuals may see:
If you’re interested in receiving your unique, evidence-based strategies for managing stress, improving sleep, sharpening focus, or addressing other mental wellness areas, order your Mental Health Map today. No prescription is required.