When it comes to creating treatment plans, no one plan fits every person. This is due to our individual genetics and personalized genetic expression. Have you wondered why B12 injections spiked anxiety or insomnia in you and not your friend? Or questioned why it took 30 years for your Hashimotos (autoimmune attack of the thyroid) to trigger? Ever wonder why your sulfite sensitivity causes migraines but your husband doesn’t have the same reaction? Have you asked if there is a way to break the cycle of inherited depression or anxiety?
This individualized response, has to do with the expression of your genetic code. We are born with a specific genetic code, but alter the expression throughout life. Epigenetics is the term associated with controlling our genetic expression. While we may have the predisposition for faulty genes, we can control their activation.
Typically it is not just one epigenetic factor that triggers gene expression. It is a combination of events, such as a combination of factors listed below. The most common factors that effect genetic expression include:
– Toxins, certain medications
– Prenatal care
– Other oxidative stressors such as: chronic infections, over exercising, emotional stress, and type A habits
– Poor digestion and absorption of nutrients
How are the genes controlled?
To understand how genes are controlled, we have to look at the biochemistry of our body, or the body’s metabolism and processing system. One of the ways genes are turned on and off has to do with, methylation. Methylation is the addition of 1 carbon and 3 hydrogen atoms called a methyl group. The addition of the methyl group inside a cell, allows genes to be turned on and off like a light switch.
Think of it as your internal light switch. Being able to turn the lights on and off is ideal. But when we have years of defective methylation, or the lights are left on, it can result in an increased risk of cancer because cells are constantly expressing their genes, and are not allowed to repair, which happens when the lights are turned off. But there are benefits to methylation, or switching on the lights. It allows the body to process chemicals and hormones like estrogen, build and breakdown neurotransmitters, construct immune cells, produce energy, manufacture the protective coating on nerves called myelin, and support and maintain healthy call membranes.
So what does it mean if the methylation is sluggish and your lights are turned off?
Sluggish methylation can cause chemicals and toxins to build up in the body, creating an imbalance in the brain (creating more sensitivity to anxiety, depression and ADHD), produce an estrogen dominant state (triggering PMS, breast tenderness and an increased risk for breast cancer), lower your immune system (do you get frequently sick?), and cause fatigue and poor muscle recovery. It can also effect pregnant women in the form of fetal development and an increased risk of miscarriage, as well as implicate Down Syndrome, Autism, and other neurological disorders.
One of the more common genes tested among patients is the MTHFR gene. Forty-five percent of the population has one defective copy of MTHFR C677T. This means that just under half of the population is at risk for a slowdown in their methylation cycle. MTHFR C677T is just one of the genes involved in the methylation cycle so it is just a snippet of the whole picture. With this in mind, if we look at the complete genetic picture, we can see why some are predisposed to mood disorders, hormone imbalance, and heart disease. This is why two people who suffer from depression may have dramatically different responses to methyl B12. If one person has a good methylation cycle, then they are given B12 and they feel great. Their B12 deficiency was more of just a nutritional need. But if the other person has not only a defect in MTHFR but also COMT (an enzyme that removed excess catecholamine – a hormone released during times of high physical or emotional stress), the same B12 will likely trigger anxiety and allergies.
Where do you start treatment?
The first step in treating the genetic defects, which are called single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNP for short, is to understand how SNPs effect how you feel and pinpoint where the pathways are getting sluggish in your biochemistry profile. It is important to remember that a positive SNP, or genetic defect, means only that you have a predisposition for genetic instability. This is why treatment doesn’t zero in only on the SNP but includes all epigenetic factors, or those that support gene expression. So while you may have the genetic defect for MTHFR, it may not be an issue due to a healthy epigenetic environment that doesn’t stress that defected gene.
As you can see, this is a dynamic system. There may be times in your life when you need more genetic support – you are undergoing higher stress, whether emotional or physiological, which increases the physiological and oxidative stress of the methylation system. For example, oxidative stress can come from chronic inflammation, such as food allergies and infections, poor digestion and inadequate assimilation of nutrients, as well as internalized stress. When we first look at treatment, we start simple – like diet – and then work our way to the genes.
We start with nutrition because some of the most important nutrients for methylation come from a combination of animal based proteins, vegetables, and whole grains. Methylation can be challenged because the nutrients needed to make biochemistry work are in short supply. Animal based proteins provide creatine, choline, B12, and carnitine. Grains, soy, nuts, and seeds deliver vitamin B6, a cofactor for a large percent of the methylation pathway. Uncooked dark leafy green vegetables give the natural source of methylated folic acid. Eggs, soy, spirulina contribute methionine, an essential amino acid that can only come from the diet. There are other cofactors as well, such as B vitamins and minerals, which if deficient, will slow down the methylation even without a genetic defect.
An overview of areas that can affect the nutrients that run your biochemistry:
Digestion: If digestion and absorption is an issue, we still need to look further to ask why
o Is there a yeast or bacterial imbalance that impairs absorption and digestion?
o Are food allergies or sensitivities creating inflammation that burns through the usage of specific nutrients, or which impairs digestion and absorption?
o Is stress shutting down digestion, creating absorption issues of nutrients?
o Is stress using up nutrients at a faster rate, creating a nutrient imbalance? Some examples are of zinc, B2, B5, and B6.
o Is stress impairing sleep, so that the body doesn’t have sufficient time to rest and repair?
o Is there a chronic infection in the body, whether viral or bacterial, that is using nutrients at a faster rate, adding a physiological stress to the genome?
o Is the detoxification ability of the body hindered by heavy metals, allergies, environmental pollutants, stress, or poor nutrient status?
Because the genome expression is affected by multiple triggers, the “epigenetics”, it is a dynamic system and where no treated is exactly the same. In order to ultimately modulate genetic expression and to treat the cause for the dysfunction, the triggers need to be assessed along with nutrient depletions. Otherwise if you just treat the gene and not the epigenetics, you are just palliating the symptoms. The good news is that sometimes all that is needed is a quick tweak to your diet that improves nutrition and gene function. Ye it can take time and patience, where in the end, can lead to a healthy and proactive approach to your healthcare.