MTHFR can come with a whole host of mental health issues including depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive traits, and more major states 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.
That idea, however neat and tidy, is just not true. 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 state. 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 examine those neurotransmitters. So let’s dive in and learn what we can about the highs and lows of particular neurotransmitter states. Especially since MTHFR ties directly into neurotransmitter formation via the BH4 pathway.
Serotonin helps to stabilize and modulate your mood, gives you feelings of well-being, and boosts joyfulness. It’s also involved in processes such as memory, feeling of reward, learning, and cognition. Interestingly, serotonin also has a heavy impact on digestion, with 80 – 90% found in the gut helping to regulate intestinal motility. Serotonin is also involved in such diverse processes as vasoconstriction and clotting. Given that it has so many functions, it is easy to see why problems show up vividly.
Symptoms of Low Serotonin and MTHFR
- Depression – Although people think of this as an obvious statement, the research on serotonin and depression is actually quite mixed. Also, life events that typically cause depression, like chronic stress and trauma, have been shown to deplete serotonin levels. So while low serotonin might be a causative factor in depression, it might also be a consequence of difficult life events that cause depression.
- Chronic Pain – Low serotonin is highly correlated with chronic pain states like fibromyalgia and many people with fibromyalgia report benefits from serotonin-boosting supplements or drugs. This could be because serotonin has the ability to strengthen the brain’s signals to the muscles. Also, conversely, if it’s in too large amounts it can make muscles like the muscles in your legs feel heavy.
- Memory or Learning Issues – Sudden issues with memory or learning could signal a drop in serotonin.
- Anxiety – Anxiety that appears without an obvious trauma or stressor, or anxiety that includes an obsessive-compulsive component, could well be a serotonin issue.
- Internal Clock Problems – Serotonin along with its metabolite melatonin help to regulate your circadian rhythm. Not sleeping according to a regular schedule, having difficulty keeping a regular schedule of hunger and eating, or feeling chronically tired or constantly hyper might indicate a serotonin deficiency.
- Sleep Trouble – Because of its relationship with your internal clock and your sleep hormone melatonin, serotonin is all tied up with your sleep. Serotonin deficiency may show up as chronic insomnia, unusual sleep patterns, chronic fatigue, or consistently vivid dreams might have low serotonin.
- Appetite Irregularity including Eating Disorders – Low serotonin symptoms may include overeating, not eating enough, or alternating between those two states.
- Dementia – Because of its link with memory and cognition, serotonin may play a role in dementia as well. Studies certainly show a link with early dementia but it is unclear whether low serotonin is a cause or a symptom.
- Hyperactivity – A link exists between serotonin and ADD or ADHD People with low serotonin might fidget constantly, feel restless or agitated, or be chronically bored.
Obviously, serotonin is a big deal for your body and certainly something that you want to have enough of. In good news, working with serotonin and MTHFR gives you some really direct routes to addressing issues. 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 if you don’t tolerate folate, it’s time to address serotonin specifically. Here are some things you can try.
- Melatonin at bedtime – Melatonin is made from serotonin, so if you’re supplementing at bedtime, it can leave you with more serotonin left over. Plus, it helps to improve sleep quality and makes falling asleep easier. It’s also a great antioxidant that crosses the blood-brain barrier, which is a total bonus.
- SAMe – If you’re already working on methylation, SAMe might already be something you’re familiar with. If it isn’t, it can be a good boost to the BH4 pathway that helps your body to crank out the neurotransmitters. Just be careful and raise your dosage slowly because, just like methylated B vitamins, SAMe can cause reactions for MTHFR folks if we take too much, too quickly.
- St John’s Wort – This potent herb has been incredibly well documented as an aid in depression, and it is documented to raise serotonin. In fact, research shows that when you compare St. John’s Wort to conventional SSRI medications, which are the most frequently prescribed medications for depression in North America, the results are very similar.
- Aerobic exercise – Serotonin is made from an amino acid called tryptophan, and doing light cardio that you enjoy triggers the release of tryptophan into your blood and decreases the levels of other amino acids, hence getting more tryptophan to your brain. For an added boost, do something that makes you happy.
- Sunshine or a light therapy box – Bright light boosts serotonin, and research has been suggesting that some might be made in our skin in response to light. If you combine your exercise with sunshine it could give you a double whammy, but if that isn’t possible, there are also light therapy boxes that can help if you have a hard time getting into the sun.
- Massage – This doesn’t have to be anything fancy. A study of depressed pregnant women showed that 20 minutes of massage from a partner twice a week boosted their serotonin and dopamine levels and decreased the stress hormone, cortisol (along with back and leg pain).
All of this boosting is great, but I do want to give you a quick warning about serotonin syndrome, which can happen if you take serotonin-boosting supplements on top of some antidepressants, or even too many supplements. Serotonin syndrome is serious and can be life-threatening if untreated. If you’re already taking an antidepressant, or if you wish to swap out your current medication for natural methods, please talk with your doctor to develop a safe plan to do so.