Genes, Brains and the Farce of “Health Care”

Every year approximately 300 million prescriptions are written for the “treatment” of psychiatric conditions. The majority of these prescriptions are written by primary care physicians for the treatment of depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. However, also in this category are drugs written to manage insomnia, attention disorders, schizophrenia, psychosis and other issues. All told, these drugs generate several billion dollars in revenue for the companies that produce them. In 2008 sales of antidepressants alone brought in $11 billion worldwide, and the market has grown significantly since then.

Drugs prescribed for anxiety are a goldmine as well. It is estimated that just over 18% of adults in the United States suffer from anxiety. While exact numbers are harder to track down for sales of anxiolytic medications (drugs that reduce anxiety), benzodiazepines (such as Valium) are one of the top-selling medications worldwide, and has been for over a decade. The list of medications in this category is long, but most of the medication names in with the letters “am,” e.g. Lorazepam, Diazepam, Clonazepam, etc.

So what’s the farce? To explain that, I need to first explain something about how genes can impact the brain.

There are three chemicals found in the brain that have a profound impact on brain function: dopamine, epinephrine and norepinephrine. When these chemicals build up too much, or when they get too depleted, it can have a significant impact on how a person feels. In general, when these chemicals build up too much they lead to an experience of anxiety, phobias and panic disorders. When these chemicals drop too low, it is associated with depression, addictions and a tendency toward substance abuse.

There is a gene that is very relevant there. It’s a gene that is abbreviated COMT (which stands for catechol-o-methyltransferase). This gene produces an enzyme that is responsible for breaking down dopamine, epinephrine and norepinephrine. If that gene is underactive, those chemicals build up and increase the probability someone will experience anxiety issues. If that gene is overactive, it increases the probability someone will experience depression or substance abuse issues.

Everyone gets two COMT genes, one from each parent. Thus, any given person can have one “broken” COMT gene or two “broken” COMT genes. The genes aren’t really broken, they are just variations of the gene that have different levels of activity. It is possible to do genetic testing to find out the status of one’s COMT genes, where one gene has the variation or both of them do.

So here’s the farce in all of this: individuals with anxiety disorders, phobias, panic disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and attention disorders (ADD, ADHD) are dramatically more likely to have a variation in both of their COMT genes, resulting in levels of those chemicals in the brain that are excessive. And the way to reduce the levels of those chemicals is very straight-forward, scientifically grounded, relatively inexpensive, usually very effective and, at times, life-changing. Individuals who have felt a sense of inner (and outer) tension and anxiety can often experience relief from those symptoms in a matter of a few days once the appropriate nutrients are given. While the nutrients needed are not necessarily the same for everyone, they are all widely available.

This information isn’t hidden from the world of conventional medicine. It’s all been published in conventional journals of research and medicine. But rather than offering patients a set of nutrients that help out their inefficient genes, our “health care system” continues to hand out prescription medications.

This is not any conspiracy on the part of primary care physicians. The vast majority of them are unaware of the role the COMT gene and these nutrients play in mental health. The problem here is systemic: physicians primarily learn about treatments through “education” they receive from pharmaceutical representatives or from journals that are heavily influenced by pharmaceutical sponsorship. These influences are not hypothetical; they have been researched and are widely known.

It is the general population that loses. Those experiencing symptoms of anxiety are turned into consumers of patented products that only mask the symptoms. Instead, people could be educated about the nutrients they might be needing to calm their overstimulated brains.

Individuals who struggle with anxiety disorders, attention issues, phobias or related issues might benefit dramatically from addressing the underlying genetic issues that could be causing those symptoms. When these symptoms have a genetic basis, people will commonly point out that one or both parents also had the same types of symptoms. Parents are, after all, where those genes came from.

If you would like more information about how I evaluate and treat these and other genetic issues, contact our clinic to set up a free consultation. That 30 minute investment of your time could, very literally, change your life.