The Science of Happiness

According to recent studies, having two copies of a particular gene are the reason some of us tend to look on the bright side. Those of us who have a long variant of a gene called 5-HTLLPR (or the SERT gene), which helps to recycle serotonin faster and more efficiently than the short variant, tend to be the happiest.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays an intricate role in our behavior. Lower levels of serotonin in the brain can lead to depression. If you are a 23andMe member, you can view the single nucleotide polyporphism (SNP) data for rs4251417 where ‘C’ would indicate the short variant.

Given how well I know myself and my family history, I was not surprised to learn that I had two copies of the short variant. Some people are very discouraged to learn this about themselves. I look at it this way — knowledge is power. So I’m not hard-wired for happiness… so what? It just means that I have to try a little harder.

I always find that starting the day off with exercise leaves me feeling more positive throughout the day. It may be the LAST thing I want to do when I wake up in the morning, but I know how much better I feel after a workout.

Other ways to boost your serotonin levels include a good hearty meal (yep, that’s why they call it comfort food!) as well as good times with friends or family. Try choosing what suits you best on a given day.

Stay positive! Your genes do play a role in how you feel, but ultimately YOU are in control of your reactions.

Drug Sensitivity and Genetics: What You Need to Know and Share with Your Doctor


At some point in our lives, we are all more than likely going to be prescribed medications to treat an acute or chronic illness.  The way each of our bodies responds to drugs is different, and our genes play a role in this.  The science that predicts a response to drugs based on genetics is pharmacogenomics.

If you have ever read the labeling information about a new or existing drug that you or a family member have been prescribed, you have likely read about possible adverse events (side effects).  Pharmaceutical companies are starting to include pharmacogenomic data in their products’ labeling.  If you have had genetic testing done, the results can help your health care provider choose an appropriate drug therapy for you, as well as determine what an appropriate starting dose would be for those with sensitivities.

If you haven’t had genetic testing done, drug response information from your immediate family
members can be helpful for your doctor to know as well.  Talk to your siblings and parents about their health history. Tell you health care providers if you are discussing drug treatment and you have had personal genetic testing done. Likewise if you are aware of a certain drug sensitivity or positive response to a drug of a sibling or parent.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, there is an ongoing need for physicians to  educate themselves about pharmacogenomics.  If your physician is dismissive when you attempt to share this important information, you may need to look for a doctor who values informed patients who want to take an active role in their health care decisions.



The Science of Sleep

Are you a night owl or an early bird?  Personally, I don’t think I am either. However, research shows that a preference for being an early riser or a late sleeper is influenced by genetics.

how much sleep do you need

A study conducted at the University of California at San Francisco by Dr. Ying-Hui Fu and her team revealed a rare mutation in the gene DEC2 of a mother and daughter who needed only an average of 6.5 hours of sleep per night due to more intense REM sleep states.  People with this mutation (also called “short-sleepers”) appear to sleep more efficiently.

Think you are one of the lucky few?  The odds are stacked against you. Less than 3% of the population is said to carry this mutation.  For the other 97% of us, how do we find out how much sleep we need?  In seventh grade math class, I remember learning a formula for calculating how many hours of sleep we need at night based on our age throughout childhood.  Once we hit the age of 18, our sleep needs pretty much stay the same (between 7.5 to 9 hours) assuming the absence of certain medical conditions.

After feeling sleep deprived for close to two years, I took a long-needed sleep vacation!  I didn’t have to go anywhere other than my bed; I just had to prioritize this little but necessary experiment, and I was on my way to feeling better than I have in years.  Here’s what you need to do.

  • Carve out two weeks where you have some flexibility to go to bed at the same time every night & wake up without an alarm clock
  • Don’t worry… for the first couple of days you will sleep longer if you have been sleep deprived – your body’s way of paying off your “sleep debt”
  • Continue going to be at a consistent time and waking up naturally.  Within two weeks, you will establish a sleep pattern and obtaining the same amount of sleep each night

Nine hours ended up being my magic number.  No wonder I had felt sleep deprived!  I was getting between 6 and 7 hours of sleep every night for the past several years.

Need other tips for getting a good night’s sleep?  Make sure you are sleeping on a comfortable mattress and pillow, and limit television watching and computer use in the few hours before bedtime.  Try to exercise in the earlier part of the day and steer clear of late-night caffeine and alcohol intake.

Schedule your sleep vacation and follow this simple formula.  You’ll be sleeping like a rockstar before you know it.