When you cannot fit into your jeans…you might want to explore your genes
Many clients come to me with the triad of abdominal weight gain, binge eating, and depressive symptoms. Having these symptoms for a long time often leads to chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. When searching for the culprit, many point fingers to lifestyle-induced obesity, and, yet, it is much more complicated and deserves a closer look.
I have been on a personal health and wellness journey with the help of a naturopathic doctor for a couple of years now. Despite dietary and exercise interventions, one biomarker remained resistant: a high homocysteine level indicating rampant, systemic inflammation. Healthy lipid profiles, a normal A1C, and excellent blood pressure readings were not congruent with this elevated homocysteine outlier. It just didn’t make sense. Then my doctor tested me for a gene mutation.
Bingo! I have an MTHFR genetic defect! Have you heard of MTHFR? With the advent of 23andMe.com and the growing popularity of routine genetic testing, this genetic slip, or mutation, is quickly becoming a familiar acronym. Actually, the MTHFR defect occurs in approximately 25% of people of Hispanic descent, 10-15% of North American Caucasians, and 2% of people of African descent. You might have one copy of the defective gene passed down to you by one of your parents, or you might have two copies, one from each parent. Certainly, having two copies of a defective gene is more likely to be problematic than having just one.
MTHFR stands for methyl-tetrahydrofolate reductase, an enzyme responsible for a very important process in the body known as methylation. If you have the mutation, your MTHFR enzyme might be functioning at only 40% of its capacity, or only 70%. When this happens, methylation is impaired to some degree. So, what’s the big deal about that? Glad you’re wondering. Methylation is a metabolic process affecting the function of every single cell in your body. If methylation is humming along smoothly, your body tends to function quite well. If methylation is impaired, many physical and mental issues can arise.
Methylation is responsible for your body being able to eliminate toxins properly. Those with the gene defect may have a hard time breaking down drugs and alcohol, explaining why those with MTHFR might get a terrible hangover after drinking when their friends do not. It also explains why some people can’t walk down the soap aisle in the grocery store without experiencing symptoms or tolerate even the mildest mold exposure; their bodies just can’t process and eliminate these toxins.
An error in the MTHFR gene might make it difficult or impossible to break down an important chemical in the body called homocysteine. Homocysteine is the template for our body’s most potent, protective antioxidant, glutathione, so important for the immune system. If you have the version of the MTHFR gene defect I have, you can’t convert homocysteine into anything useful and it builds up in the blood, damaging the arteries. This can result in heart disease, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease. Since knowing I have the MTHFR gene mutation, I have curiously explored how it may have played out in my life and possibly the lives of those who come to me for help.
Besides affecting homocysteine, methylation is also involved in maintaining mood by making neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. If you have the MTHFR defect, your body may not be able to produce adequate amounts of these vital neurotransmitters resulting in resistant depression, binge behaviors, and abdominal obesity; the triad of common symptoms I see in my clients. Other symptoms close to home for myself and my family (after all, this is a genetic mutation) include excess estrogen, miscarriages, diabetes, anxiety, fatigue, seasonal allergies, histamine sensitivity, autoimmune disorders, numbness and tingling of hands and feet, perfectionism, addiction, skin disorders, and cardiovascular disease. Check, check, check. Although I can’t prove a cause and effect relationship between the MTHFR defect and these conditions, all are associated with methylation defects. In essence, having the MTHFR mutation can be viewed as setting multiple genetic vulnerabilities in motion.
So, what are we to do? I encourage my clients with these symptoms to get genetic testing for the MTHFR defect. If they have it, it can be treated with daily supplements of methyl-folate and methyl B12, specific B vitamins in their active forms. People with MTHFR can’t convert folic acid, found in processed foods and most multivitamins, into folate, the form the body needs to drive methylation. They also can’t convert the inactive form of Vitamin B12 into methyl B12, the active, usable form methylation requires. The inactive vitamins just build up in the blood where they can actually mask a deficiency. So, on a blood test, it may look like you have plenty of B12, but since you can’t convert it to the active form, you may experience symptoms of anemia. Prescription grade sources of the necessary B vitamins are available as Methylpro or Deplin.
You can also supplement with SAMe to offset low levels of brain neurotransmitters and NAC, or n-acetylcysteine, to help replenish glutathione. Even if you don’t have the genetic defect, you could benefit from B vitamin supplementation and eating foods high in natural folate such as leafy greens, broccoli, lentils, and beans. Ask your medical physician, naturopath, or certified clinical nutritionist to help you select supplements appropriate for your MTHFR issues.
I approach all my clients with a scientific curiosity and never assume behavior is solely a product of one’s psychological framework; we can never separate mind and body when trying to understand someone’s story and paving the road to recovery.