Whilst you cannot change the genes that you were born with, the good news is that you can make changes to regulate whether they are switched on or not, based on the concept of epigenetics.
You may be from a family that has a genetic history of mental health issues but perhaps as a result of one of the most exciting research programs of the last decade, the Human Genome Project, you may be able to change your own destiny.
This project identified over 21000 genes with a possible 4 to 5 million genetic variations to genes, chromosomes or proteins, known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs).
Whilst most SNPs have no effect on health, some may influence your vulnerability to environmental toxins, your ability to synthesise neurotransmitters, your risk of developing specific diseases and/or your detoxification capacity as well as many other metabolic functions.
What is Epigenetics?
Epigenetics relates to the effects of your behaviour and environment on the way that your genes are expressed. These changes do not alter the actual DNA sequencing of your genes, but rather the way that your body interprets the sequence. The above-mentioned SNPs can turn the expression of your genes “on” or “off”.
Epigenetics and Mental Health
Whilst genetics do play a role in mental health, our environment may determine whether our genes are turned “on” or “off”. Factors such as stress, exercise, nutrition, toxicity, physical environment, certain medications and various infections may possibly impact a gene related to mental health.
There are many genes that are involved in the synthesis of neurotransmitters (for example serotonin, GABA and dopamine), and if these are hindered by SNPs then you might make too much or too little of a particular chemical, which may have a knock-on effect on your mood disorder.
For example, a SNP relating to the GAD1 gene that codes for the conversion of excitatory glutamate to the calming GABA, may contribute to anxiety or feelings of being on edge.
One gene that has been extensively researched is MTHFR, the methylation gene. This gene doesn’t just play an important role in brain chemistry but is also a key function in your stress response, digestion, detoxification, inflammation and immune systems to name a few. It has been implicated in a number of mental health disorders. Many people take a supplement to address this, but this doesn’t necessarily alleviate symptoms or resolve the underlying issue as a number of other factors often need to be taken into consideration as well.
Other genes relate to detoxification and if you have a problem with these you may experience higher toxicity which in turn may impact your brain health.
As there are so many factors which may impact your genes, it is not always a simple case of taking a supplement. Sure, they may help but identifying what is causing the SNPs may be a good starting point. Some strategies include:
- Adopting a healthier diet to maximise nutrient variety and density.
- Improving your digestion to ensure optimum nutrient absorption; sometimes you may tolerate constipation or diarrhoea as has become your norm.
- Managing your stress levels, perhaps through meditation, mindfulness or some form of counselling so that other systems may better function.
- Eliminating sources of toxins, such as in personal care or cleaning products.
- Identifying if you have an underlying infection; perhaps that niggly cough or runny nose is trying to tell you something.
- Exercising on a regular basis.
As genetics is an exciting and rapidly evolving new field of science there are many DNA testing kits on the market. My preference is for a full wellbeing panel although there are simpler, mood and cognition kits available too.
If you’d like to find out how you may be able to redefine your destiny and work with a nutritionist, please contact us to make your first appointment.
Author: Beverley Dorgan, BHSc Nutritional Medicine, ANTA.
Beverley Dorgan is a Brisbane Clinical nutritionist with a special interest in how the foods we consume can impact on our mental health from anxiety and depression to OCD and behavioural or learning issues.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call Vision Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3088 5422.
- Olfson E, Ross DA. Genes Orchestrating Brain Function. Biol Psychiatry. 2017;82(3):e17-e19. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2017.06.003
- National Human Genome Research Institute
- NIH US National Library of Medicine – Genetics Home Reference