MTHFR can come with a whole host of mental health issues including depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive traits, and broader issues like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
Culturally, we tend to jump to the idea that all mental health issues are neurotransmitter problems and that the only way to solve them is by boosting your neurochemistry. We’ll explore this in a series of posts. You can find the first one, on serotonin, here. Today, we’ll discuss dopamine and MTHFR.
With MTHFR especially, it is most important to look first to your methylation and work on balancing that because balancing your methylation will produce tremendous changes in your mental health. There are other areas to explore too, like estrogen dominance (this is an issue for us MTHFR folks), low testosterone, or thyroid dysfunction. Still, once you’ve looked at the rest of your health, you may still want to explore neurotransmitters because MTHFR ties directly into neurotransmitter formation via the BH4 pathway.
Dopamine and MTHFR
Dopamine release is pleasurable and is associated with feelings of reward, so dopamine is tied into learning and motivation. The more dopamine a particular activity causes to be released, the more motivated we are to engage in that activity. Likewise, if only low levels of dopamine are released then we lack the happy reward feelings and are not very motivated to try that activity again. Dopamine is also involved in the regulation of body movements, and very low dopamine is linked to both Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia.
Symptoms of Low Dopamine and MTHFR
While low dopamine can express as a mental health issue, the first signs might not actually be related to mental health. Also, symptoms of low dopamine can be an issue with the actual level of dopamine, but more commonly it is an issue with the levels of dopamine receptors, which are also susceptible to fluctuation.
- Persistent constipation – Dopamine in the spinal nerves may be linked to the healthy movement of the GI tract.
- Low enjoyment – Because dopamine produces feelings of reward, low dopamine can make you stop enjoying the things that used to make you happy.
- Tremors, shaking hands, restless legs, or muscle twitches – Dopamine’s involvement in regulating muscle function means that low dopamine can affect these systems first.
- Difficulty swallowing or aspiration of food – The muscles that control swallowing are also regulated by dopamine and are very small muscles with major functions. Decreasing dopamine levels can make it more challenging for this system to function the way it should.
- Decreased sex drive – Just like dopamine is involved in reward with other activities, it’s involved with the feelings of reward that we get from sex as well.
- Addictions – For some people, a low sense of reward can lead to addictive tendencies. Especially with drugs powerful enough to trigger that sensation.
- Fatigue and lack of wakefulness – Dopamine is one of the reasons you feel refreshed and alert most mornings. Low dopamine or low dopamine receptors leaves you feeling groggy, fuzzy, or sleepy.
- Weight gain – especially after periods of high dopamine stimulation, like the weight gain that follows smoking cessation. Essentially, chasing the same dopamine levels leads to overeating.
- ADHD – research is beginning to show a link between low dopamine states, genetic polymorphisms relating to dopamine receptors, and ADHD.
- Major depressive disorder
- Parkinson’s disease
Obviously, dopamine is vital to health and wellbeing.. The biggest and most important step for MTHFR folks is going to be balancing your methylation. That means following the To Health WIth That Plan – eliminating folic acid, getting a background of good B vitamins without any folate or B12, then slowly adding in methyl folate and a good form of B12 one at a time. All of this while using your symptom tracker. If the plan is new to you, we’ve got a great “Start Here” resource for you.
Once you’ve got your methylation levels where you want them with methyl folate or folate alternatives, it’s time to address dopamine specifically. Here are some things you can try.
- Exercise – running, dancing, or otherwise working up a sweat can push dopamine levels in certain parts of the brain, leading to the characteristic “runner’s high.”
- Sleep – sleep deprivation has been shown to reduce the number of dopamine D2 receptors in the brain, and restoring healthy sleep can replenish those numbers.
- Losing weight – Research has shown that obesity also reduces the number of D2 receptors relative to normal. Losing weight could help to boost those receptors again.
- Listening to music, seeing beautiful art, singing, or playing – while the survival benefit to feelings of reward from food or sex is pretty clear, this is a bit more mysterious. Uplifting or beautiful music, enjoyment of art, singing, or engaging in play stimulate the same feelings of reward via dopamine and can be used to bolster flagging levels.
- Eat your dopamine – bananas, avocados, and plantains are good dietary sources of dopamine, and banana peel is almost 100 times richer a source than banana pulp, so maybe it’s time to make some organic whole banana smoothies. Also, eating good food sources of tyrosine, which is the precursor to dopamine, can be very helpful. These include chicken, almonds, peanuts, soy, and dairy products.
- Reduce your stress levels – chronic exposure to stressors lowers neurotransmitters globally, including dopamine. Learning how to reduce or manage your stressors can change those levels for the better.
- Eat less saturated fat – saturated fats like those in butter, animal fat, coconut oil, and palm oil can disrupt dopamine levels when eaten at high levels. Research shows that the changes in dopamine levels happen even without changes to weight, hormones, blood sugars, or body fat.
- Meditate – One study showed a 64% increase in dopamine response after an hour of meditating vs an hour of sitting quietly. 64% is a whopping increase, and although an hour of meditation might not fit into everyone’s daily routine, I’m guessing you could find 15 minutes.
- Sunlight or a light therapy box – Dopamine D2 and D3 receptor levels are much higher in people with higher sunlight exposure than they are in people with low sunlight exposure. Getting more light can boost your receptor profile.
- Mucuna pruriens – Mucuna pruriens, otherwise known as velvet beans have a high level of L-dopa, the direct precursor to dopamine. Studies on Mucuna for Parkinson’s disease show that the benefits of Mucuna might be both stronger and longer lasting than those of traditional medications for Parkinson’s disease. Velvet beans are toxic in high amounts so always work with a practitioner to find a good dose for you.
- Tyrosine supplements – Tyrosine, taken away from food can give your body a good supply of precursors to feed your dopamine pathway.
Neurotransmitter balance, including dopamine levels, depends strongly on your methylation, and balancing methylation is your foundational step. Once you’ve laid the foundation, addressing receptor function should be your next priority. Lifestyle changes that boost your receptors like getting good sunlight exposure, meditating, and making dietary changes, will be far better in the long run than taking supplements unless you’re in an extremely low dopamine situation like Parkinson’s or schizophrenia.