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Are You Biologically Wired To Be An Anxious Person? Here's How To Tell

Karyn Shanks, M.D.
July 26, 2017
Photo by Carey Shaw
July 26, 2017

We can soothe the overwhelm of anxiety through what we do for ourselves.

Anxious friends, hear me now: There is no way to ignore or "hack" care of our bodies. A body that is sick, out of balance, overtired, or undernourished will move into stress overdrive syndrome. The body is under siege from lifestyle influences and biological imbalances—these are entirely under our control—and sends out stress signals that demand our attention to mobilize energy reserves for survival. For many of us this translates into the heightened discomfort of anxiety and of being more easily triggered into anxious states.

My functional medicine background has led me to understand anxiety as a symptom of imbalance, not a disease. Numbing it or medicating it doesn't address the underlying root causes (though may provide much-needed respite for those in real trouble). I've had to contend with my personal biology to discover the ways in which I am more vulnerable to anxiety. A few key corrections to my nutrition and lifestyle have made a world of difference. For all of us, self-care is a critical inroad to smoothing out the rough edges of anxiety.

In many cases, self-care addresses the root causes of anxiety: nourishing food, teas, movement, detoxification, sleep, relaxation, connection, and all the ways we live and care for ourselves. These have powerful influences on our genetics and the internal biology that drives how we feel.

Here's how to use the power of food to calm your mind.

Remove all food irritants like grains and dairy for a time to see if they are causing an imbalance. Get rid of sugars, especially high-fructose corn syrup and refined carbohydrates, including starchy vegetables and high-sugar-content fruit. Maximize nutrition by eating more plants, especially dark greens, and multicolored varieties. Optimize your protein intake and eat healthy fats. It is recommended to do nutrition testing if you suffer from anxiety (at-home kits are very helpful, but I also recommend seeing a functional medicine doctor for a full screening) to identify unique needs and to look at key genetic markers that address areas where our physiologies are vulnerable. Some people need to avoid stimulants like coffee and chocolate or excesses of alcohol, for example.

I discovered through genetic and functional testing that I have some key and common genetics that lend themselves to heightened anxiety: in my ability to methylate and break down stress hormones. Both of these issues contribute to anxiety, are easily tested for, and can be addressed with simple nutrition strategies.

My genetic mutations indicate a higher sensitivity to anxiety.


I possess a copy of the MTHFR-C677T genetic variant, which means my ability to methylate folic acid (methylation makes folate fully functional) is reduced by as much as 30 percent. For those who possess two copies of this gene, their folic acid methylation capacity can be reduced by as much as 70 percent. Folic acid is involved in the synthesis of important neurotransmitters involved in cooling and calming the nervous system, like serotonin and dopamine. While the scientific literature has shown a solid link between MTHFR polymorphisms and depression, and not anxiety per se, depression and anxiety often intermingle, and I’ve seen anxiety resolution in my medical practice when patients have made the correction.

MTHFR-C677T gene correction:

Supplementing with methylfolate, a pre-methylated form of folic acid, helps bypass the methylation roadblock. Just 400 mcg (micrograms, not to be confused with milligrams) taken daily as part of a multivitamin or as a separate agent will resolve this critical problem for most people. You can use homocysteine levels to gauge adequate correction (ideal homocysteine level is between 6 and 8, and it will be above this level in the presence of a methylation block).


I also have a genetic variant of COMT (Catechol-O-methyltransferase), which is involved in the breakdown of catecholamines—epinephrine and norepinephrine, also known as adrenaline and noradrenaline—two of our stress hormones. When I'm stressed and tired, my stress hormones hang around longer, adding to the potential for anxiety, which makes me hypervigilant and feel overwhelmed.

COMT gene correction:

Through a combination of stress reduction (meditation, exercise, and mindfulness), antioxidants, and s-adenosyl-methionine (SAM-e)—200 mg taken at bedtime—I have felt better. This can be a tough one to correct—the stress reduction piece is critical and is a challenge to sustain in this crazy world.

Here are three other ways I keep my anxiety in check:

1. Prioritize sleep over everything else.

I’ve had to become militant about sleep, getting eight to nine hours every night, even if it means being a party-pooper and going to bed early while everyone else stays up. Nothing revs up the stress hormones like sleep deprivation.

2. Move every day.

I have to move my body every day to lessen the grip of anxiety, from sitting to standing to walking throughout the course of my normal day, with bursts of intensive exercise, which I do by going to CrossFit classes four times weekly, yoga classes twice weekly, yoga poses interspersed throughout my days, and long walks with my dogs or alone in the woods.

3. Reduce immune system overdrive.

This is when the immune system is in a persistent state of hypervigilance, leading to stress overdrive syndrome, driving anxiety for susceptible people. Food irritants and sensitivities, chronic infections, allergies, toxins, gut flora imbalances, nutrient deficiencies, and chronic lack of sleep are all common causes—they all drive persistent immune system activation. In my experience, I've seen (and felt) immune system overdrive lead to continuous abundance of the chemical mediators of inflammation, released by the activated immune cells that promote stress as the body's effort to support survival. Addressing these sensitivities, infections, toxins, and deficiencies will downshift the immune response, soothe the vigilant stress response, and calm our moods and minds.

To solve for these, the best way is to see a naturopathic doctor or functional medicine expert.

Anxiety is my guide. I want to keep the way it gets my attention, leading me to positive action. What I want to change is my worry that it's something wrong with me by using food and mindfulness practices to balance out genetic and biological imbalances that could lead to anxiety.

Feeling anxious? Here are 11 ways to calm your anxiety stat. Plus, here are nine ways to calm your mind from a master of minimalism.

And do you want to turn your passion for wellbeing into a fulfilling career? Become a Certified Health Coach! Learn more here.
Karyn Shanks, M.D. author page.
Karyn Shanks, M.D.

Karyn Shanks, M.D., is a physician who lives and works in Iowa City. Her work is inspired by the revolutionary science of functional medicine, body-mind wisdom, and the transformational journeys of thousands of clients over her 26-year career. She believes the bones of healing are in what we do for ourselves. Visit her website and Facebook page.