You many not have heard of MTHFR yet, but it is the acronym for a gene methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase that produces an essential enzyme. This article may be of greatest interest to those who have been diagnosed with one of the mental health issues linked to having an MTHFR mutation, such as depression , bipolar disorder , schizophrenia , attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder ADHD , or autism.
MTHFR mutations also increase the risk of several physical health problems, including but not limited to cardiovascular disease and stroke, recurrent early miscarriage, migraine with aura, osteoporosis, and some cancers.
Furthermore, it can increase the risk of having an adverse reaction to receiving nitrous oxide anesthesia a common dental anesthetic. A Quick, Basic Genetics Overview As you may remember from biology class, genes are pieces of our DNA that control a specific characteristic such as hair or eye color, etc. Each gene is made up of two alleles, or specific forms of that gene. In short, genes and their alleles determine what traits we inherit from our ancestors.
Sometimes these traits are obvious, such as having blue vs. Other times, the result of a specific trait may not be immediately obvious, such as whether we will like or detest the herb cilantro, metabolize caffeine quickly or slowly, or have increased or decreased risk of a health problem down the road.
A mutation is a naturally occurring process that causes a specific variation on one or more alleles of a particular gene, changing a sequence in our DNA. Having a mutation on both alleles at a specific location on a gene is generally associated with a greater impact than if only one of a pair of alleles is different from normal.
But even having one mutated allele is associated with increased risk of certain health problems. Some people may have two mutated alleles — one at each of two different locations on the gene - and that also increases risk of a number of health issues.
Normally, the MTHFR gene produces enough of the related enzyme to perform its associated functions well. One function that is particularly important to mental health is the conversion of an essential B-vitamin, folate, into the more usable form, l-methylfolate.
L-Methylfolate enables our bodies to convert the amino acid homocysteine to another amino acid, methionine. The body then uses methionine to make proteins and other important compounds, including neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine , norepinephrine. These brain chemicals are essential for a number of aspects of mental health; thus, when this process is impaired, it can increase the likelihood of the mental health issues mentioned previously. In addition, when the enzyme is not working at normal capacity, it can lead to elevated levels of homocysteine in the blood, which can lead to cardiovascular and other health problems.
Despite the increased risks, however, having a specific MTHFR mutation has been associated with a reduced risk of acute lymphatic leukemia and colon cancer in those who have adequate folate levels. The good news is that the risk of a variety of health problems is increased in those with MTHFR mutations, but thankfully, developing these problems is not guaranteed. If you have a personal or significant family history of one or more of the above illnesses, and in particular, if you have not responded as well as expected to conventional treatment for depression or other mental health issues, it is worth speaking with your medical provider about being tested for an MTHFR mutation.
The preliminary research on MTHFR, autism, and ADHD suggest that adequate prenatal intake of folate — both in the period 3 months before conception and during the first month of pregnancy in particular - can reduce these risks. Other Factors That Interfere With Folate Metabolism and Increase Health Risks In addition to having an MTHFR mutation, there are other factors associated with decreased folate levels or poor absorption, including malnutrition, gastrointestinal illness, and high alcohol consumption.
What You Can Do The good news is that there are some simple and inexpensive steps one can take to reduce the risks associated with MTHFR mutations, possibly improve response to antidepressant therapies, and feel better in general.
Swap out folic acid for the more bioavailable form of folate — l-methylfolate. This is more usable by the body and easily available in health food stores, many pharmacies, and online. Strive to eat a diet that is healthy in general and includes folate-rich foods.
Leafy greens, broccoli, lentils, and many beans are great sources of folate, fiber, and other nutrients. Because MTHFR impacts the process of methylation, it is also recommended to take a methylated and more usable form of B12, known as methylcobalamin, rather than the more commonly available cyanocobalamin form.
B12 absorption is essential for good mental health, and is also compromised by the MTHFR mutation and the other factors listed above. Speak with your healthcare provider about what the your nutritional and vitamin regimen should consist of, including what doses would be most appropriate for you.
If you are planning a pregnancy and are positive for an MTHFR mutation, you may also need to add either low-dose aspirin or a blood thinner to your regimen to reduce the risk of blood clots associated with early miscarriage.
Again, consult your healthcare provider to see if this is appropriate for you. For more information, please consult the following resources below.