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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Smart

Common Genes affecting Mental Health

Nutrigenomics is the study of the interplay between our nutritional status and our genetics.

I have found a nutrigenomic approach very useful in the management of mild mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety, which are becoming increasingly common, especially among our nutrient depleted, screen obsessed youth.

This is because there are several nutrients that directly affect the making and balancing of our neurotransmitters: the chemicals in our brain that govern our mood, such seratonin, dopamine, adrenalin, histamine, and GABA.

For example vitamin D is essential for making serotonin, which is why people in countries with little sunlight can be very prone to depression in the winter months. Other nutrients, like B vitamins (especially B12, B6, and folate), zinc, and magnesium have a profound effect on the utilisation and metabolism of our neurotransmitters.

So let's take a look at some common single nucleotide polymorphisms (variations within genes) that have been connected in the medical literature, with mental illness.

1. COMT val met - This variation slows the function of the COMT enzyme so that excess amounts of both dopamine and adrenalin are more slowly released from the body. This can create a situation of dopamine dominance which may contribute to anxiety. It can also cause problems with rushes of adrenalin. A person may have a stronger 'fight/flight' response to stress that causes a certain amount of emotional reactivity in the face of perceived threat or stress.

2. MAO A and B - Variations in these genes may either up regulate or down regulate the maintenance of serotonin and dopamine levels. A common variation that lowers the function of MAO A is associated with autism, ADHD, bi-polar, major depressive disorder, panic disorder and alzheimer's.

3. Cytokines - These little chemical messengers play an important role in regulating inflammation, including neurological inflammation. Several SNPs affecting both pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines such as IL-6, IL- 2, IL-12, IL-10 etc. have been implicated in the onset of depressive illness.

4. MTHFR, MTR, MTRR - These genes affect the metabolism and use of folate and B12 which in turn govern methylation, an important biochemical pathway in the pathogenesis of depression. Common variations of these can indirectly change the balance of neurotransmitters, leading to issues with anxiety and depression, among other things, depending on what other genetic factors are involved.

5. HNMT and DAO - These genes regulate histamine levels and variations of them have been shown to cause imbalanced levels of histamine which can have an impact on anxiety in particular.

So what is the point of knowing the genetic basis of a mood disorder? The study of genetics is only useful when it gives us clues about treatment. Many believe individualised gene-based medicine is the way of the future, especially in the area of mental health where the same medication can help one patient but make another worse. Many psychiatrists are now using DNA testing to determine the type of drug to use in specific cases. From a nutritional medicine point of view, much can be done to ensure a person with compromised genetic pathways has access to activated forms of important nutrients that help to balance mood. Dietary changes and nutraceuticals can also be useful in changing neurotransmitter patterns, helping to regulate histamine, serotonin and dopamine, and lower inflammation, a common driver of mental illness.

For more information on genetic factors in depressive disorders, the following article published in the journal 'Frontiers in Physchiatry' covers numerous studies and several other genetic factors at play.

Book an appointment if you are interested in learning more about the nutrigenomic influence of your genetics on your mood disorder and what you may be able to do about it. Genetic testing relevant to nutrient uptake and some of these aforementioned genetic pathways, is available at Smart Nutrimed.

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