Part One of Series: Genes, Nutrients and Mental Health
As a nutritionist specializing in mental health, one of the most promising and exciting areas of research and discovery for me is the world of genetic investigation and how nutrients impact and compensate for genetic vulnerabilities.
I decided to write a several part series to bring you up to speed on the common terms and common tests, and the possibilities they offer. There is much research still needed to be done, but we are learning more every day.
Start by considering these three facts:
The genes you inherited may be the strongest indicator of your predisposition to develop a mental health or mood disorder of some kind, including depression, anxiety, addictions, ADHD, bipolar, schizophrenia, etc. In fact, William Walsh, PhD, who along with his colleagues has researched the biochemistry of 30,000 people with varying mental health issues said in his book, Nutrient Power:
“By the mid-1970s, most scientific and medical experts agreed that the dominant cause of most mental illness involved genetic or acquired chemical imbalances that alter brain functioning.”
Some of the genetic variations with known connections to mental health and mood can be easily tested for and people are ordering their own genetic tests and exploring their genetic variations themselves using sites like 23andme.com. Additionally, integrative doctors and other health practitioners are beginning to order assorted genetic tests. The most common test ordered now, the MTHFR, tests for one specific gene’s variants. The test is called the MTHFR mutation test. One reason this test is ordered so frequently is because about 45% of us have at least one mutation in this gene, and it may have a large impact upon our health. It is also one of the better researched variations.
Diet and lifestyle can turn genes “on” and “off”. A person’s environment including such things as exposure to toxins and heavy metals, diet, stress, exercise, etc., can affect the expression of a person’s genes, and also mitigate the effects of some of the less desirable gene mutations.
Introduction to MTHFR and the significance of methylation
In all of the cells of your body, complex biochemical pathways are taking place continuously. These pathways connect with each other and you can think of them like interlocking gears. Each step in these pathways is catalyzed by an enzyme, and each enzyme is made at the direction of one gene. Sometimes, these genes, composed of DNA, have a small mutation in the DNA. If you remember your high school biology, DNA is made up of four nucleotide bases: adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine. When a single base in one position is replaced by another base, you have what is called a single nucleotide polymorphism commonly referred to as a SNP (pronounced “snip”). Everybody has SNPs, and some SNPs have more effect than others on our health. They can be good, bad or neutral. When you have a SNP that affects a gene which codes for an enzyme, then the resulting enzyme isn’t perfect. Sometimes it makes no difference at all, but sometimes these altered enzymes can make steps in the biochemical pathway (reactions) go too fast or too slow. Because of the complex interdependencies between the biochemical pathways – think interlocking gears – a single step affecting one pathway, can affect the pathways or “gears” which interlock with that affected pathway, and then the pathways which interlock with those others, and so on. If you think about how a single car accident on the freeway can affect all of the cars way back, and then the roads which feed into the freeway, and then the neighborhood roads that feed into those, you will get the idea.
The MTHFR gene directs production of the MTHFR enzyme (methylenetetrahydrate reductase), which begins a very important series of biochemical pathways in the body called methylation. As I mentioned above, about 45% of us have one or more mutations to this gene. The methylation pathways are critical because methylation is one of the ways that genes are turned on and off, depending upon the situation, the tissue in your body, and what your body needs at a particular time. Methylation is simply the addition of a methyl group – (one carbon and three hydrogen atoms) to a molecule in the body, and when that molecule is DNA, it can turn off a gene. Methylation helps in the development of neurotransmitters which are needed for thinking, learning, good mood, normal behavior and brain function in general. These biochemical pathways are also necessary for your body to regulate inflammation, eliminate toxins, and keep your homocysteine within normal levels. The end result of these pathways is the availability of sufficient, but not excessive, methyl groups in the body to be able to regulate your genes properly. So, it’s a balance. Some SNPs make the pathways go faster and some slower. So for a lot of people they cancel each other out and you are fine. For others, you end up with too many or too few methyl groups. Blood tests can help to determine whether you are over-methylated or under-methylated or just right. This is not inconsequential. Imbalance can result in serious psychiatric disorders, like schizophrenia, eating disorders, panic and anxiety, manic states, and more.
Nutrients to the Rescue
This is where diet and nutrients come in to the picture. Targeted nutrients can help people whose methylation pathways are sluggish, and also help those whose pathways are producing too many methyl groups. They can also help with individual steps within these pathways when these mutations are identified through testing. That is because many of the enzymes in the methylation biochemical pathways require vitamins and minerals to work properly. Nutrients most commonly needed are special activated forms of B-vitamins, zinc, and magnesium. However, some of the gene mutations or variants may require that a person consume a higher than average amount of certain nutrients, or a specific form, requiring targeted individualized supplementation.
In the next installment of this series, I will discuss the various types of MTHFR mutations, their impact on mental health and what to do about it if you have one of the variants, if anything. In the meantime, you can support this function by eating leafy greens which supply a natural healthy form of folate. Two to four cups (uncooked) every day.