Mental Health is our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Mental health determines how we handle stress, interact with others, and the choices we make. Many factors contribute to our mental health: biological, life experiences, and environment. Many view mental health as the homeless person talking to themselves, but it is the CEO, the mother, the doctor, or a child who all experience changes in brain chemistry affecting their mental well-being. NAMI, National Alliance on Mental Health, reported that one in five adults in the United States suffers from a mental or emotional illness. Child Mind Institute reports that the most common childhood diseases in the United States are mental health disorders and many are undiagnosed.
Medications such as psychotropics, anti-depressants, mood stabilizers, and antipsychotics work but carry serious side effects, making compliance difficult. Although medication is helpful, it does not get to the root cause of the illness. Mental health is complex and as we learn about genetics, epigenetics and, nutrigenetics it becomes clear that many healthcare professionals do not fully understand the complex nature of the brain.
A typical adult brain has around 100 billion brain cells and an average of 1,000 synaptic connections. Every thought, action, and emotion are communications of brain cells that are set off by chemicals called neurotransmitters. Most practitioners are unaware of the fact that neurotransmitters require basic nutrients such as amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and other natural biochemicals we obtain from food. Serotonin, a well-known neurotransmitter, is made from amino acid tryptophan and requires B-6 as a cofactor. Dopamine originates from two amino acids and needs iron and folate for proper production.
Good mental health requires adequate neurotransmitter activity synapses. Genetic expression of key transporters is intensified by certain nutrients and decreased by others. There are multiple genetic and environmental variations that can produce abnormal nutrient levels in the brain. If the brain has a severe overload or deficiency of nutrients required for proper neurotransmitter production and activity, one can expect to be faced with a “mental” problem. Having an understanding of how nutrients play a role in neurotransmitter production has given rise to a new medical approach to mental health; this field is called “Nutritional Psychiatry”.
Until recently we thought our DNA was cast in stone and could not be changed. We now understand that our genes can be changed not only in utero but throughout life, based on our environment. The rising field of epigenetics is the study of how our genes change in response to behaviors and our environment. Epigenetic changes are not changes in our DNA sequences but in how our body reads the DNA sequence. Nutrients have a critical role in influencing which genes are expressed or silenced in different tissues.
Methylation works by adding a chemical group to our DNA, the group is added to a specific place on our DNA where it blocks protein that attaches to DNA to “read” the gene. Methylation affects our brain function, including memory, attention, mood, and learning. When we can methylate effectively, we are better able to shift our tissue demands to meet our environment and adapt as needed. Gene mutations in the Methylation pathway, such as the MTHFR gene, can change the necessity of certain nutrients.
When a person has an MTHFR gene mutation, they must get folate and B12 in the correct form, or they may get homocysteine toxicity as well as poor conversion of methionine to SAMe. S-adenosyl-L-methionine (SAMe) is a compound found naturally in the body. SAMe helps produce and regulate hormones and maintain cell membranes. Discoveries in genetics, epigenetics, and biochemistry have allowed the doors to open with a real possibility of many diseases being prevented or even reversed with nutrient-specific therapy, including mental health. Nutrients are the fuel that carries all biochemical pathways, not pharmaceuticals. The science of nutrients and genetic expression is nutrigenomics, and it is the future of not only medicine but mental health treatment.
The field of nutrigenomics looks at the specific nutrients needed to turn off or turn on genes. Understanding your specific nutrient needs can put you in control of your brain health. With blood work and genetics, we can now assess one’s nutrigenomics and determine what specifically is needed. Bypassing mutated genes and supplying the missing nutrients within a methylation pathway can change how all cells function in the body, including neurotransmitters.
With new discoveries in nutrigenomics, we can maintain positive mental health, allowing us to cope with the stresses of life, work productively, and realize our full potential.
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Author: Ashley Johnson, FNP – Natural Bio Health Wellness Team