By P. Casey Arrillaga, LCSW, LCDC
The understanding and treatment of mental health disorders is constantly evolving, and at Windmill, we are always striving to be ahead of the curve when it comes to providing the best treatment. We know that the way a problem is understood will define how it is addressed. While many explanations for mental health problems have been offered throughout human history, a modern understanding looks at both genetic and environmental factors.
One gene that has gotten a lot of attention in the past few decades is the MTHFR gene. Its possible role of in a large number of physical and mental problems has made it a target of much research, to the point that some have humorously labeled it “the motherf***er gene.” As we’ll see in this post, it doesn’t deserve that label, but better understanding of its role can point us to better mental health treatment.
What We Know So Far
The MTHFR gene is vital to our physical and mental health because it tells our bodies how to metabolize the nutrient folate, at type of B vitamin, into a form that can be spread all over our bodies, including to our brains, which rely on it. Folate is an essential nutrient, so any change in how it is spread throughout our systems can make a big difference in how well we function. Like many of our genes, the MTHFR gene has a number of variations. In the same way that other gene variations give us different eye or skin colors, some MTHFR gene variations reduce how well folate is converted into a form that is easily spread around the body. Someone with a particular variation may get 40% less folate than their friends and neighbors who eat the same diet. To make matters worse, some people carry multiple copies of their variation, with each copy significantly decreasing the body’s ability to metabolize and thus effectively use folate, to the point that some people have as much as a 70% reduction in how much folate they can utilize from the foods they eat.
As you can imagine, this has led to a lot of research into variations of the MTHFR gene, and a few variations have been studied fairly extensively to see if and how much of a role they play in various diseases. Research has shown that certain genetic variations of the MTHFR gene are found more often in people who suffer from depression, anxiety, attention-deficit disorders, schizophrenia, and autism spectrum disorders. The link to substance use disorders (alcoholism/addiction) is not as strong, but given how much substance use and other mental health problems impact each other, it’s not hard to see that greater understanding in one can benefit the other. Variations in the same gene have also been associated with everything from Alzheimer's disease to heart conditions to some types of cancer. Of these, variations of the MTHFR gene known as C667C/T have gotten the most attention when it comes to mental health. The results are not always straightforward or completely conclusive, but most research finds there is some association.
Some of the mixed results may come from the fact that these genetic variations seem to affect different groups of people differently. For instance, some MTHFR variations make a bigger difference in Caucasian populations than in Asian populations or vice-versa, depending on the condition being studied. There can also be differences in how much a MTHFR variation affects women versus men, again depending on what health condition is being considered. Not surprisingly, diet can also make a difference, since we’re talking about a nutritionally-based effect on our bodies and minds.
How Can We Leverage This Information?
Genetic testing for MTHFR is neither common nor inexpensive, and usually not covered by insurance. In fact, many geneticists recommend against getting a MTHFR test. Surprising as this sounds, the reason is that there is a simpler test to see if folate doesn’t seem to be getting absorbed at healthy levels.
This is a test for homocysteine levels in the bloodstream. High levels of homocysteine indicate a potential problem that can be addressed by taking a folate supplement or even better yet, eating more foods that provide a natural source of folate.
These foods include beans, peas, lentils, asparagus, eggs, leafy greens, beets, citrus fruits, bananas, brussels sprouts and broccoli, nuts and seeds, and avocado. There are other less common foods that provide folate, but the list above will get most people going in the right direction.
This is one of the reasons that such foods are available and encouraged for all our clients at Windmill. They are part of our salad bar at every lunch and dinner, and citrus fruits and bananas are out as snacks 24 hours a day in client common areas.
While many people don’t think about how their food intake can impact their mental health, this is an area that warrants time and attention. Eating healthier meals is partly a gesture of self-care that can improve mental health all by itself, but for those who have unhelpful MTHFR variations, it may also be a way to give the body what it needs to feel and think better.
The Bottom Line
The MTHFR gene is important to our physical and mental health because it helps us get the nutrition our minds and bodies need to function properly. Some of its variations have been found to have links to many mental health issues. Genetic testing for this is not as helpful as simply improving diet to make sure any internal obstacles are overcome. While this won’t cure everything by itself, when it comes to mental health, every advantage we can find contributes to a better life.
About The Author
P. Casey Arrillaga is the Team Leader for Education at Windmill Wellness Ranch, and he is the author of books including “Realistic Hope: The Family Survival Guide for Facing Alcoholism and Other Addictions”.