Genes and genetic testing—and what our DNA can reveal about our health—have become topics of much research and great interest. Patients who wish to gain a more thorough understanding of their body’s intricate processes can—with assistance from knowledgeable health professionals—cross-reference lab results with genetic testing to get a better picture of their health.
In the case of ADHD, neurotransmitter testing (which indicates levels of dopamine, serotonin, epinephrine and others) can be used in conjunction with genetic tests to discover the reasons why neurotransmitter levels may be off and match them up with the most effective interventions.
Your Genes Tell a Story
Genes produce enzymes, and then those enzymes make chemical reactions happen in the body. Genes control the production of neurotransmitters (how fast or how slow they’re being produced), the reuptake of neurotransmitters by neurons (how long they are active in the brain) and the degradation of neurotransmitters (how fast or slow they exit the brain after they have been utilized).
Looking at neurotransmitter levels (usually obtained through analyzing a urine sample) is important, but this study only gives us a snapshot in time of the big picture. When you pair neurotransmitter levels with results from a genetic test (usually obtained through analyzing a saliva sample) it gives us insight into HOW those levels came to be, and which genes may be affecting the production and utilization of the neurotransmitters.
The genetic tests show variants in your genes…mutations that affect the functions of the genes, which can explain the levels of neurotransmitters seen in each snapshot. Variations cause the genes to change the rate at which they perform their functions (production, reuptake and degradation of neurotransmitters in this case) which in turn affect how your body functions.
How Genetics Affect ADHD
Dopamine is just one neurotransmitter that we evaluate in people with ADHD; one function of dopamine is to regulate focus. There’s a gene called COMT that is responsible for the degradation of dopamine. If this gene is working too slowly, a person could have higher levels of dopamine because the neurotransmitter is not breaking down properly. But there are also other genes that affect dopamine in different ways. There are genes that produce dopamine and genes that store dopamine. So even if we’ve identified that the COMT gene is working too slowly, that could be offset by other genes.
What we look for are multiple genes telling a story in one direction. If the genes are making too much dopamine, storing too much dopamine and not able to break down dopamine, we will see evidence of excessive levels of dopamine. That person is going to be hyper focused and very motivated but incredibly agitated because dopamine does that, too. The person might act like they’ve had way too much coffee that day. They’re going to be excessive with an energy that just overwhelms people.
Solving Mysteries with Neurotransmitter Tests and Genetics Testing
The neurotransmitter test and the genetics test don’t always match up. For example, from the neurotransmitter test, it may look like someone has normal to low dopamine levels, but their symptoms may not support that. Through the genetics test, we may find out that a slow COMT gene isn’t getting rid of dopamine properly; it’s not being excreted. It makes sense once you see the whole picture.
High levels of dopamine showing up in a neurotransmitter test could indicate the person is breaking it down too quickly. This could be due to a “fast” COMT gene, or because it’s not being metabolized properly or being utilized by the brain properly; the person’s body is making it, breaking it down and not using it.
For example, a child may show high dopamine levels from a neurotransmitter test but exhibits no focus or hyperactivity. With high dopamine levels, the child should be very focused and maybe even hyperactive. The culprit may be a defective pathway in the genes. A gene variant may not be allowing them to use the dopamine. We can’t change the gene itself, but we can help change the speed at which the gene’s enzyme functions.
How Does Genetics Help Solve ADHD and Other Problems?
Genes and the enzymes they produce are affected by the presence or absence of cofactors: vitamins, minerals and amino acids. For example, if a person has a “slow” COMT gene, this may create a situation where they’re hyper focused, highly motivated but extremely agitated, impulsive and frustrated. Here magnesium is a helpful cofactor. If you’ve ever wondered why magnesium helps you feel relaxed, here’s why: magnesium helps us break down excessive dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine (all excitatory neurotransmitters).
If a person has a “fast” COMT gene and is breaking down dopamine too much, then we may want to support them with cofactors that help increase dopamine in the brain, like the amino acid l-tyrosine. If we know the story of the blueprint, we can work around the genes.
Lifestyle Changes That Help Solve ADHD Issues
Lest we imply that supplementation is the only work-around for gene variations, you should know that your lifestyle habits also affect your body’s ability to balance neurotransmitter levels.
For example, a child with a “slow” COMT gene may exhibit anger, agitation and frustration. He’ll need to live in a more relaxing environment. Hint: Spending too much time on a computer is not relaxing because that activity naturally raises dopamine levels. Remember, COMT degrades dopamine, so if it’s running slow, that child will not be able to excrete dopamine very well once it has been produced. If he’s at the computer, bingeing through YouTube and Tik Tok videos, he’s increasing dopamine levels that his body cannot get rid of easily.
Therefore, when mom calls him to dinner, she’s met with a maniac child who’s screaming in protest because his dopamine is off the charts. To avoid such scenarios, it’s important to make sure the child is taking time to relax or play outside—activities that don’t boost dopamine production. Mom can also include high magnesium foods like avocados, greens, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains. Supplementation with magnesium glycinate could also be useful. Of course, a comprehensive nutrition program that limits sugar, GMOs and gluten, and includes more whole foods would also be beneficial. Of course, always consult a health professional before starting any new health program.
While much about our genes and their functionality is still a mystery, what we do know helps tremendously when dealing with many health issues. Adding genetic testing as a tool to evaluate the causes of ADHD symptoms can clarify any discrepancies between measured neurotransmitter levels and exhibited symptoms. This can lead to a more relevant and comprehensive treatment program with better outcomes.
Special thanks to Dwight Franklin, Doctor of Oriental Medicine, for his help with this article. Dr. Franklin is the owner of Franklin Family Wellness Institute. He is a graduate of the Florida College of Integrative Medicine, where he received a master’s degree in Oriental Medicine and a bachelor’s degree in Health Studies. Over the course of his career, Dwight has worked alongside both pediatricians and psychiatrists in the treatment of ADD, ADHD, Autism, and various other common childhood and mental disorders through the practice of Oriental Medicine, Nutritional and Lifestyle changes, and Craniosacral Therapy. Call (407) 755-3135 or visit his website here: https://www.myffwi.com/