How to Sharpen Your Competitive Edge | Women, Genetics, and Hormones

Are you competitive?  Have you ever wondered what makes some of us more competitive than others?  Why do some people wilt in the face of competition while others thrive, setting new PRs and breaking records in the process?  If you happen to be involved with CrossFit, you know that the CrossFit Open is going on right now.  I am doing the Open workouts for sport and fun, but I have friends who are competing for a spot in the Southeast Regionals.  In thinking about all of this, I began to wonder why men are often more competitive than women, and what makes some women better at competing than others.


There are a variety of factors that come together to create a competitive spirit but for now, I’m going to focus on the genetic factors, hormones, and the ways in which these factors affect women differently from men in competition.  Chromosomes, dopamine, and estrogen.  That’s the name of the game here.

Numerous studies have narrowed down the competitive tendency to one specific piece of our DNA on chromosome 22.  Along that chromosome lies a string of codons, but we’re only looking at one of them.  Codon 158.  There are three letters on that baby which tell our bodies how to make the COMT enzyme (I’ll tell you what this is in a second-just remember COMT for now).  Two of these three little letters are the same for all of us.  One of those letters can be either “A” or “G” depending upon your genetic code.  That tiny little letter means the difference between making two entirely different molecules.

One of the molecules creates a fast COMT enzyme, and one creates a slow COMT enzyme.  The fast COMT enzyme is kind of like the Tazmanian devil molecule, while the slower version is like the Tortoise enzyme.  You with me so far?  Tazmanian Devil vs. Tortoise.

Here is why this matters.  When we compete, one of the most important neurotransmitters involved is dopamine.  Dopamine floods the prefrontal cortex area of your brain, which is usually a good thing.  This helps you focus, strategize, plan, and discern your mistakes from your good moves during the competition.  If you have too much dopamine during a competition, this isn’t a good thing because you may feel overexcited, overwhelmed, and downright anxious.  You’ll be unable to think clearly, focus, or correct your mistakes well during the game.



Time to tie these two together.  The COMT enzyme is like the trash removal truck for excess dopamine.  If you have the Tazmanian Devil version, your fast enzyme will remove the excess dopamine in your brain quickly, thereby helping you thrive during competition.  If you have the Snail version, your slow enzyme will remove dopamine slowly from your brain.   You may be more likely to feel overwhelmed, panicked, and shut down during situations involving competition.  This, my friends, is what is happening when people freeze “like a deer in the headlights” during a competition.  The brain is flooded, and it becomes nearly impossible to think clearly.

Here is where this gets really good.  Ladies, estrogen moderates the COMT enzyme by slowing it down.  It doesn’t matter whether you have the Tazmanian Devil or the Tortoise version.  Our queen female hormone literally enters the cell and alters how the genetic transcription is read.  Estrogen slows down the COMT enzyme and reduces dopamine reabsorption by up to 30%.  Clearly, we have higher levels of estrogen than men all the time, which is the reason that women are generally less competitive than men.  In other words, estrogen is like kryptonite for your competitive edge.

Guess which one is which?  Mike is a Tazmanian Devil through and through.  I'm a mix of both.

Guess which one is which? Mike is a Tazmanian Devil through and through.  He is a great athlete who earned a full college scholarship for tennis.  I’m probably a mix of both.  I love competition until the day arrives.  Then I loathe it.

When are our estrogen levels highest?  Twice.  Right before ovulation and just before your monthly visitor.  Assuming that you are not menopausal, this means that there are two times during each month that a competition could push any of us over the edge into Meltdown Territory.  If you use hormonal birth control, your story will be different.  You won’t experience the same two peaks during the month because hormones remain fairly level.  That’s both good and bad since there are some real advantages to those hormonal peaks.  Given this information, I would guess that pregnancy pretty much destroys competitive drive for some women.

Should you try to time your competitions according to your hormonal fluctuations?  Of course not.  You probably couldn’t do that if you tried.  However, this does lend credence to the idea of reducing any stressors around the time of a competition.  This includes emotional stressors and physical stressors like overtraining, too much coffee, and supplements containing GABA (this neurotransmitter spikes anxiety).  Remember that alcohol, unhealthy foods, medications, and sleep deprivation are also stressors.  Be sure to have some complex carbs with your proteins since eating protein in the absence of carbs increases dopamine, too.  You can read more about how to alter your neurotransmitters and moods through your behaviors here.

Physical stressors are fairly concrete, but emotional stressors can be tough to pinpoint.  The only way that you can truly reduce emotional stress is to change your perception of those emotional stressors.  You can also use various empirically proven techniques to help you cope with emotional stress.  I’ve reviewed some of these in past posts here on meditation, how to fix adrenal fatigue, and how to reverse the brain changes caused by chronic stress.

The EmWave is also an excellent way to train yourself to get into “the zone.”  Regardless of genetics, hormones, or neurotransmitters, this technology can help anyone optimize athletic performance during competitions.  I’ll talk more about this soon.

Information.  The more you have, the better life gets.  That’s all from Lighthouse Point today, folks.  13.3 will be released tonight-to all of you competing, good luck!  I can’t wait to see the workout.  Ciao!



  1. Shelley says:

    Wait, never mind! Love your blog!! So cute!! XXOXO