MTHFR and JoyHacks – Boost Your Happy

Joyfulness is a beautiful and elusive thing. It’s easy and common to get bogged down with the everyday life stuff. The things that need doing, or cleaning, or getting, or disposing of. There are lots of repetitive activities, frustrating waits, stressful rushes. I get that. There is also, in all of these moments, an opportunity to be happier.

We’ve just finished talking about MTHFR and the different neurotransmitters – serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine as well as my somewhat offbeat neurotransmitter theory so it seems like a good time for some joyhacks. Small, everyday things you can do to boost your joyfulness long-term.

#Joyhack – a small everyday action, activity, or behavior that will actually boost your joy. Proven by science.

Amy Neuzil from tohealthwiththat.com

Simple Joyhacks with A Big Impact

I am 100% sure you’ve seen a list like this before, but the question is, have you acted on it? I talk to so many people about joyhacks who say they’ve heard of some of these actions but haven’t actually added any of them into their daily routine.

Almost all of these will take 5 minutes or less, with the exception of exercise (shoot for 7 – 10 minutes at least) and meditation (if you can get 10 minutes, you’re great!) These aren’t hard, you just have to remember to do them.

  • Set small goals, and meet them. The simple joy of crossing something off a list actually boosts your dopamine. It also boosts your self-confidence because every time you set goals you can meet you are showing yourself that you can finish things and you can meet your own expectations. It’s a joy double-whammy. 
  • Don’t set yourself up for failure. Be realistic about what you can achieve given your time, energy, and other demands (family, sleep, etc…) Failure has a negative impact on your joy.
  • Sleep. No matter what else you do, prioritize sleep. If you can, take a small dose of melatonin at bedtime. It helps boost serotonin, helps clear excess norepinephrine, and protects your brain from oxidative damage. Also, it improves your sleep
  • Sunlight early in the day. Getting 15 minutes of sun exposure in the morning as early as possible is a great boost to your vitamin D and all of your neurotransmitters. If sunlight isn’t possible, invest in a lightbox or a good full-spectrum bulb.
  • Exercise. Not only is exercise good for literally every health parameter we know about, but it’s also amazing for your neurotransmitters and helps your body to optimize literally every one
  • Balance your methylation. This is all about MTHFR after all…
  • Meditate. If you can meditate regularly, even if it’s just 10 to 15 minutes a day 4-5 days per week, your mental health will change rapidly. This is one of the simplest, quickest ways to hack your headspace. Meditation isn’t just sitting quietly for a few minutes, it’s an active process. There are a ton of great free or low-cost resources out there. When you first start meditating expect to notice your mind getting busier before you notice it getting calmer. That is totally normal.
  • Hold a pencil in your teeth every day for 2 minutes. This forces your body to make a smile, even when you don’t feel like it and smiling boosts your serotonin. Seriously.
  • Trade massages with someone close to you. Or, pay a professional. Human touch and massage are a big deal for neurotransmitter levels, plus it feels awesome. 
  • Listen to beautiful music, appreciate art, appreciate nature, sing, or play. You have so many great options here and each one of them will help to boost your dopamine. Whichever one makes you smile to think about. When you do this activity, do it with your whole attention. Don’t listen to music while you work on the computer – take 10 minutes and really listen.
  • Every time you notice a negative thought, come up with a positive one. Optimism and joyfulness are as much about habit as anything else. We did a whole post on breaking mental bad habits and also what to expect when you’re breaking mental bad habits, and this trick is a simple balancing act. Every time you notice yourself getting down on something, try to find three things you’re happy about or that you appreciate about that thing, person, or situation.
  • Minimize your hassles. A body of interesting research shows that the small things have a much greater impact on happiness than the big things do. That’s small hassles and also small rewards. If you can find ways to minimize your small hassles – like shifting your hours so you don’t drive in rush hour, or taking the extra junk out of your closet so the only clothes that are left are things you truly love, like a capsule wardrobe, it has a significant impact on joy.

These are all small things, and even small things can feel overwhelming when you’re overly anxious, stressed, or depressed. But go through the list and find the one that makes you smile. Maybe you’d like to play and blow bubbles in the park, or maybe the idea of holding a pencil in your teeth for two minutes a day is absurd enough to get a smile out of you. But whatever it is, pick one small thing and do it every day. Every day for at least a month – then let me know how you feel.

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MTHFR and Neurotransmitters – Amy’s Neurotransmitter Theory

These past few weeks we’ve been talking about the link between MTHFR and the production of different neurotransmitters via the BH4 pathway. This includes serotonin and melatonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine and epinephrine.

The research seems to mostly agree that people with mental health issues like depression or anxiety, often have imbalanced neurotransmitters. Somehow, however, that has translated into a locked-in, fixed idea pattern culturally in which depression and anxiety are always neurotransmitter issues and so supplementing or augmenting neurotransmitters is the best path forward medically.

Everyone Agrees Mental Health Is All About Neurotransmitters.

I do want to say that there are people who find a supplement or drug that works for them, stay on the same dose for 15 years, and feel great. There are those cases. These are the shining examples of neurotransmitter-based therapies working and I love seeing them because in the end, it’s a simple solution.

Unfortunately, there are also cases of people chasing down a feeling they had briefly. They get on a drug or supplement, go through the adjustment reactions, it works for six months or a year and then they’re back where they startedmentally, but taking a pill. They increase the dose, increase again, switch to a related drug or supplement and still aren’t where they want to be. They can’t match that time period when the pill was working. They switch to a different class or category of drugs or supplements, and give that a try. Each time with a six to eight-week adjustment window and a host of new or different side effects. I see this all too frequently.

There are several possible problems with the neurotransmitter-only model. We’ll start with the simplest and most obvious problem and work toward more controversial issues.

“Depression” Is a Big Word

And it seems to mean something a little bit different to everyone who says it. Likewise, with anxiety. Over the years I’ve had hundreds of clients tell me they’re depressed. They are always surprised when I ask what that means to them. Not surprisingly, the answer to that question varies greatly.

One man was highly offended at having to educate me about such a basic question. His answer was, “What do you mean what do I mean? I’m depressed! I get up in the morning, the toaster doesn’t work so I slam it on the counter four or five times, and then run out of the door without eating because it’s just too difficult. I’m depressed.” Another client told me she got up in the morning, cried in the shower, cried in the car, smiled all day through her work as a high-level executive, cried the whole way home, then smiled through dinner with her family.

You might notice that the pictures these two people have painted are very different. And these are just two examples out of a seemingly endless variety. The point is, “depression” isn’t something uniform. Sadly, when many people go to their doctor or practitioner and say “I’m depressed” there are only really a handful of standard neurotransmitter-based treatment options for such a myriad of different pictures.

Neurotransmitter Overlap

Another issue I see with the idea of working with mental health from a purely neurotransmitter direction is that the neurotransmitters have significant overlap.

Say you look at something like attention. Serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine are all heavily involved in attention. Much the same with enjoyment and even alertness. In situations like this engaging in lifestyle changes to actually boost all of these neurotransmitters is a great idea and will help to cover all the bases, but taking a drug or supplement that boosts one pathway leaves plenty of gaps in the system.

It’s obvious, when you look at it this way, that boosting one pathway out of many might lead to imbalances elsewhere that show up as side effects.

It Is Not A Tug Of War

Medicine has become very mechanistic since the advent of penicillin because so many drugs, which do one precise thing in the body, have been lifesaving. I’m all for lifesaving drugs, but this model comes at a cost. We’ve backed ourselves into a corner in which we tend to oversimplify the body into being akin to a constant tug of war between opposing forces or directions of imbalance.

If we suspect serotonin is low – meaning the low side of the tug of war is winning – then we just boost up the other side so it gets higher. Easy. The problem is, neurotransmitters are less like a tug of war and more like a web, with forces pulling at twelve points instead of two. We can, of course, boost up one of those points but it becomes difficult to predict how the other twelve will react and where that will place new stressors on the body.

Your Body Is Smarter Than That

The last issue with boosting a particular neurotransmitter chemically is that for very many people this turns into chasing a dream. Think back to the scenario in the outline where someone started neurotransmitter therapy, had a golden year or nine months, then chased that for the next three years. What happened there?

Well, it is my belief, although this is not a well-researched area, that your body is pretty smart at adapting to the outside world. If your body has set your neurotransmitters at a certain level, and you do something to change that level, I have every faith that your body can reset so that they’re at that same level again, even with the new influence.

The point is, that we’re not getting to the WHY question. WHY did your body set the neurotransmitters at that level to begin with?

Maybe it really is a disfunction or pathology in which your body can’t keep up with production. That is a legitimate possibility (and MTHFR folks – if your methylation isn’t balanced then this is entirely possible because your BH4 pathway is impaired). But what if the problem isn’t production? What if there is a more complex reason for the neurotransmitters being set where they are? What if they are there to compensate for something else that is out of balance?

Your body is the most amazing thing you will ever see, touch, or possess. It is working constantly to return to health, to compensate for damage, to adapt to a dynamic world full of challenges and resources of which you aren’t consciously aware.

So If It Is Not All About Neurotransmitters, Then How Do We Fix It?

The wonderful thing is that working with neurotransmitters is still an option, but this opens up a lot of other options as well. Before you look to neurotransmitters it is important to look to other causes of mental health issues. We did a whole post previously on this topic but some of the more common ones are:

  • Low folate
  • High homocysteine
  • Low thyroid
  • Imbalanced hormones
  • Low testosterone
  • Estrogen dominance
  • Trauma or mental health history

Nobody likes that list because it’s just easier if there’s a pill for it. Sometimes the pills really are the best thing, but it’s a good idea to be open to other types of treatment as well. Be willing to let go of the idea of the magic pill if it just isn’t serving you.

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MTHFR and Norepinephrine

MTHFR can be with mental health issues including depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive traits, and global 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 idea in a series of posts. You can find the a discussion of serotonin here and information about dopamine here. Today, we’ll discuss MTHFR and norepinephrine, which has the dubious distinction of being both a neurotransmitter, and a hormone.

With mental health issues in a person with MTHFR, it is most important to look first at your methylation because balancing your methylation can 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. Specifically, the formation of serotonin and melatonin, and the catecholamine neurotransmitters including dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine.

MTHFR and Norepinephrine

Norepinephrine and its metabolite, epinephrine, are unique in that although they are primarily neurotransmitters, they also function in the rest of the body as hormones. Neurotransmitters are the method your nerves use to communicate. One neuron sends a chemical signal, the neurotransmitter, across a synapse to another neuron. Hormones are released generally into your bloodstream to affect your tissues.

Norepinephrine and epinephrine are generally associated with the fight or flight response. Although these neurotransmitters do have separate functions, there is significant overlap and so in terms of mental health, it is helpful to think of them in tandem. Generally, more information is available about norepinephrine as a neurotransmitter than about epinephrine so we’ll talk primarily about it. Norepinephrine is also involved in alertness, arousal of interest, pain response, and skeletal muscle function.

Symptoms of Low Norepinephrine

  • Decreased alertness
  • Memory problems
  • Depression
  • Loss of interest
  • Brain fog
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of motivation

Conditions Associated with Low Norepinephrine

  • Fibromyalgia
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Major depressive disorder
  • ADD/ADHD
  • Hypotension, or severe low blood pressure

Boosting your Norepinephrine If You Need To

  • Exercise – as with every other neurotransmitter we’ve talked about, exercise boosts your catecholamines in a healthy way.
  • Meeting Goals – learning to set goals effectively (in a way that allows you to regularly meet them) can provide a huge boost to your norepinephrine.
  • Love – love boosts catecholamines and in a complex way is related to these neurochemicals.
  • Sleep – also as with the other neurotransmitters, sleep is integral in the healthy formation and function of norepinephrine and epinephrine.
  • Cold water plunge – this can double or even triple your norepinephrine levels in just a few minutes.
  • Sauna – if cold isn’t your thing, a sauna can accomplish the same goal, it just takes a bit more time.

Symptoms of High Norepinephrine

Norepinephrine, unlike the other neurotransmitters, is as commonly too high as it is too low.

Like dopamine, can be involved in drug-type “highs” and subsequently this list looks very much like someone who has taken too much cocaine.

  • Tense or spastic muscles.
  • Anxious, fearful, irritable, or racing thoughts.
  • Fear of crowds or small spaces.
  • Insomnia, increased wakefulness, poor sleep.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Changes to blood sugar sensitivity and the way glucose and insulin are produced.
  • Headaches – people with chronic cluster headaches tend to have higher plasma levels of norepinephrine and dopamine, but high norepinephrine may lead to other types of headaches as well.
  • Pounding] heart and increased blood pressure – norepinephrine increases the contractile force of the heart and raises systolic blood pressure.
  • Sweating, generally freaking out.
  • PTSD – recent research has shown that people with PTSD may have an overactive norepinephrine system.

Decreasing High Norepinephrine

Decreasing high norepinephrine is something we all want to happen quickly, but it’s important to give your body time to adjust.

  • Lose weight – a study of obese older men showed that losing about 10 kilos (roughly 24 pounds) resulted in a 31% decrease in plasma norepinephrine levels. Bear in mind this is norepinephrine as a hormone and not as a neurotransmitter, but the levels seem to rise and fall at the same time.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – Cognitive behavioral therapy operates on the idea that people who have had long-term stress have developed ways to cope with that stress, and helping them to learn healthier ways, will have a positive impact on their levels of anxiety, perceived stress, and also their neurochemistry.
  • Melatonin + Lying down – Melatonin, mostly known as the sleep hormone, also helps to balance norepinephrine levels, but only if you take it and then lie down. Since it’s the sleep hormone, it’s probably best to do this at bedtime.
  • Meditate – Meditation packs a punch in terms of reducing stress and balancing neurochemistry.

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MTHFR and Serotonin – an Unhappy Marriage.

Let’s talk BH4, biopterin, and the whole sh*t show. Remember the interlocking metabolic loops in which the methylation pathway intersects and cogs into other pathways, essentially so that it affects everything your body does? Yeah. We’re getting back into that mess.

the MTHFR lifestyle matters because of the way these cycles all interconnect.

You’ll notice that the green MTHFR process sits smack between the folate cycle and the BH4 cycle. The other inconvenient thing you might notice is that the products of the BH4 cycle are, inconveniently, serotonin, and dopamine. These are your internal happy pills – when your body takes you to a happy place it is because of these molecules. Neurotransmitters = happy pills. MTHFR and neurotransmitters = problem. Also, serotonin and melatonin (your sleep hormone) are linked, so there are other consequences to this whole thing being out of whack.

I’ve Never Even Heard of BH4!

Right? BH4, also called tetrahydrobiopterin, isn’t something that people talk about because normally it happens in the background. BH4 doesn’t do too much that is exciting other than contributing to other reactions, so nobody talks about it. The problem is, the other reactions it contributes to just happen to be the ones that make your neurotransmitters (also, our nitric oxide, which will be important when we’re talking about blood flow and heart disease).

Nobody likes it when this goes wrong.

Without MTHFR You Can’t Make Your Internal Happy Pills

Without a fully functioning methylation pathway (and it’s end-products like 5-LMTHF and SAMe) your body has a decreased ability to make Serotonin, Melatonin, Dopamine, Norepinephrine, and Epinephrine. In short, with an MTHFR issue, your body struggles to make enough neurotransmitters. Also, via this same BH4 nonsense, Nitric Oxide but we’ll have to cover that in a separate post.

Low Serotonin Feels Like 😞😢🍽

Low serotonin feels not so good. Sad, low mood, low enjoyment, hungry – probably craving carbs. Just not feeling the zing in life, even if your life is full of zing. You might be feeling irritable for no reason, you might be feeling tired -even tired to the point of chronic fatigue syndrome. It could feel like hopelessness, and at the extreme end, you see thoughts of suicide. Depending on how low your serotonin is you could have mild symptoms or you could be clinically depressed. Serotonin also has a number of functions outside of mood including regulation of digestion. If your serotonin is really low, you might want to read this.

Low Serotonin Leads to Low Melatonin. 😳

Low Melatonin feels pretty bad too. This is the can’t-fall-asleep, gaining weight for no reason, brain fog and dog-tired problem.

Low Dopamine Feels Like 😑😕

Low dopamine feels like being bored. Bored, bored, bored. Loss of satisfaction, joylessness, apathy, and low energy. Also low drive, low attention, lack of motivation, and enthusiasm. Extremely low dopamine can lead to something called anhedonia (the opposite of hedonism) which is absolute lack of pleasure in anything. Also, low dopamine levels are highly associated with addictions, because if you can’t get joy anywhere else, you might get a high from a drug.

Low Dopamine Can Lead to Low Norepinephrine and Epinephrine

These can lead to low energy, lack of concentration, attention deficit and also anxiety or altered fight-or-flight response.

This is Miserable. How Do I Fix It?

Your doctor will probably suggest antidepressants, which work miracles for some people, but tend not to work as well in those of us with MTHFR mutations. So there is that. For MTHFR mutants, it all comes down to balancing out the methylation cycle so that there is enough 5-LMTHF, SAMe, BH4 (or tetrahydrobiopterin), and generally enough methyl-groups to go around. If you’re ready to get started doing that, check out our Start Here for MTHFR document!

There are a few BH4 supplements available, but they haven’t gained a lot of traction for neurotransmitters and are used mostly for cardiovascular disease (to boost nitric oxide, which is a big deal) and also for a condition called phenylketonuria, which is unrelated to this discussion.

There Is Good News!

SAMe supplements can be extremely helpful to begin to enhance neurotransmitter formation without actually fixing methylation directly, and can be a great stop-gap while you’re working to get your methylation sorted out, because that can take some time and patience.

A Note About Melatonin

Melatonin is your body’s sleep hormone, but it also crosses the blood-brain barrier to act as an irreversible antioxidant in the brain and helps to regulate your weight. For many years there has been a myth that taking melatonin as a supplement will decrease your body’s own production, as is the case for many hormones. In good news, there is zero researched evidence that this is true – there is no evidence that taking melatonin decreases your body’s own production. Also, if you’re not sleeping well and haven’t been for some time, then chances are your natural melatonin is all being used to protect your brain and none is left over for sleep. Supplemental melatonin can help you get to sleep and increase your sleep quality. Usually, a low dose is enough, but if you’ve been sleep deprived for years you might need to up things a little. A typical starting dose is 3 mg. Doses of 20 mg and greater have been used with some success for many solid-tumor cancers, and some people are sensitive enough to it to need only 1 mg or less.

Mmmmm. Delicious, happy sleep.. Thanks, melatonin!

When you take melatonin, if you fall asleep well but wake in the night feeling wide awake, then the dose might be too high for you. If you don’t fall asleep easily, then the dose is probably too low. So at least this is one BH4 problem that we can solve.

Next week we’re starting the dive into fixing your methylation because it seems like you should be able to just take some folic acid and be sorted, right? Yeah. except that for MTHFR folks, there is some pretty compelling research showing that folic acid is actually the next best thing to toxic.

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