Ginger in the DNA: Genetic Differences of Redheads

Most geographical locations are home to certain physical attributes that rank in the majority. This often has to do a lot with the climate and terrain. Darker skin is better prepared for hot, sunny areas. Pale skin and light hair are more manageable with overcast skies and cooler climates. Biological differences are more noticeable in modern times due to an increase in global travel. Some genetic dispositions are more prevalent than others. Red hair is the rarest of the hair colors, bringing with it some unique differences in DNA.

The Gene

The gene responsible for red hair eluded scientists until the year 2000. It was then that advances in research techniques led to the discovery of mutations in the melanocortin 1 receptor protein (MC1R). All humans have the gene, however, various mutations cause the phenotypic presentation of red hair, light eyes, and pale skin. The total amount of the global population sporting red hair is still unknown. The genetic knowledge is still fairly new, meaning that more research is needed to have a better understanding of its prevalence.

Anesthesia and Painkillers

Redheads have shown to have differences in their needs when it comes to some medications. When a redhead goes in for surgery or childbirth, they may need more anesthesia to get the desired results. The MC1R genes are part of the genetic disposition that determines pain tolerance. It seems confusing, however, redheads have a higher sensitivity to painkillers, but are resistant to anesthesia. Their higher pain tolerance causes them to need lesser amounts of opioid drugs.

On average, redhead patients need about 20 percent more anesthesia than those with darker hair. Researchers think that the MC1R gene is linked to the production of endorphins. These are the body’s way of countering pain. The pain tolerance of redheads may be due to their natural ability to copy the action of endorphins. They release a hormone in their brains that acts the same as endorphins.

Temperature Changes

Sensitivity to temperature changes goes along with an overall sensitivity to the elements. When temperatures go up and down with the seasons, redheads often feel the extremes more profoundly. This increased perception may be helpful in alerting redheads when to head indoors and avoid harmful weather. Darker haired individuals may be able to tolerate a short time out in the extreme hot or cold. A redhead, however, may feel the change almost immediately in a more intense way. Offer the redhead near you a jacket when a sudden cold front comes in, they may need it more than you.

Vitamin D

Your redhead friends are more likely to burn in the sun due to lesser amount of pigment in their skin. Your body, however, needs vitamin D to maintain mental and physical health. There is  no need to worry. Those with darker skin are set up to better resist the suns dangerous UV rays, however, more sun exposure is needed to reach optimal levels of vitamin D. Over time, as humans migrated, skin tones lightened when less sunny areas of the world were reached. The ability to process vitamin D in a more efficient way happened to accompany this transition. Redheads are able to make the right amount of vitamin D to stay healthy, with minimal outdoor exposure.

Redheads are often stared at with wonder. They, unfortunately, are also often on the receiving end of taunting during the school age years. Their unique DNA mutations have led to some helpful adaptations that have secured the survival of the phenotype. A higher pain tolerance makes them a little superhuman, as well. Resistance to pain, efficient vitamin D production, and an acute differentiation of temperature are all useful attributes of being ginger.


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