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Here is a question that was recently sent in from a dear reader of mine:
Hi Dr. C, I just learned that I have a serotonin gene called MAOA that makes me prone to violent behavior. Is this why I feel anxious? Will it help if I take 5HTP?
Thanks for your help – Beth
Thanks for asking this question. Here is a direct answer and it is a great chance to cover a broader topic.
Here is a little background for everyone else: the MAOA gene affects how long serotonin stays in your brain. When it leaves too fast, one can feel more agitated. It has been shown that violent criminals have higher rates of this gene.
This gene has not been implicated to be a cause of anxiety. Medications or supplements that act on serotonin like 5HTP could theoretically buffer the effects of this gene.
Does having this gene mean that you will become either a criminal or mentally ill? To give a little perspective, roughly 40% of the population has this same gene variation that you do.
I just read an excellent book that happened to discuss it. The book is called Behave and it is written by Robert Sapolsky. He’s the same scientist who wrote why zebras don’t get ulcers many years ago. He is unique in that he spends half of his time studying primates in Africa, and the other half of his time studying human brains and neurons in the laboratory as a neurologist.
In the book Behave, he explains all the factors that influence our behavior, namely our genes, environment, brains, upbringing, and many more. The theme that becomes clear is that although we know how many variables can shape behavior, the final result always depends upon all of the others.
He talked about the MAOA gene and cited evidence that although it has been associated with violent behavior, this is only true in the context of stressful situations, and severe early life trauma. In the absence of these factors, the gene has no predictive effect.
He also gave some gentle pushback on the popularizing of genetic research. In general, many whose industry it is to sell tests or advice from tests, make conclusions that researchers and scientists would not make.
He went as far as to say that being aware of having a warrior gene, would almost certainly have a stronger effect upon one’s behavior then having a warrior gene would. In other words the expectation of the genetic effect would be larger than the genetic effect itself.
Please do not think that this gene will turn you into a violent person. If you have suffered from anxiety, please know that roughly a third of the population does also. It is significant and it can be helped. Here’s a recent article I wrote that could be a good starting place for you: How to Lower Anxiety.
To your health,