You are not simply the aggregate of your genetic data. Lifestyle and environmental factors affect the expression of ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ genes. This expression then impacts our physical and mental health.
Understanding the interaction between the environment, your lifestyle and your genetics will help you understand your health in a practical way.
Environmental factors like diet, sleep quality, stress level, and toxic burden, all have a biochemical effect on how your body functions as a whole.
Conventional Treatment: An Outdated View
Whereas the function of your immune system, digestive function, and allergic reactions are all treated as symptoms beyond an individual’s control - mental health is still in a category of its own.
In many ways, mental health is still seen as separate from the rest of your health.
When something goes ‘wrong’ in the form of anxiety, depression or a disorder of some kind, it is either seen as an inevitable function of genetics or a failure of self-control.
This attitude is not only scientifically inaccurate but is detrimental to the treatment of these conditions.
Mental health conditions are not hopeless or necessarily inevitable and there are usually better approaches than by simply taking a symptom suppressing pill.
Genetics and Mental Health
About 25 years ago many geneticists would have said that we would soon have a gene for every disease.
Researchers anticipated the discovery of a ‘cancer gene’ and a ‘heart disease gene’ that would, with accuracy, predict if a person would get a disease. The reality has proven much more complicated.
There are very few conditions that are determined by genetics alone. The diseases that claim the most lives every year have genetic factors - but they are modulated by our environment through epigenetic changes.
How well we detoxify our bodies, process nutrients, and maintain homeostasis as guided by our genetic blueprint and influenced by our environment will define our mental, physical and emotional health.
It is easy to become fixated on individual genes and their importance. It is important to remember that your genetic material works in collaboration as a symphony does - and the music changes as you change your behavior.
There are many families who have the ‘worst’ combination of genes putting them at 'high risk' for a specific disease like Alzheimer's and yet, there is no history of the disease anywhere in many generations, and the patient never gets the disease.
There are few individual genes that are perfectly predictive.
Our Environment Modulates our Genetic Data
We are far from knowing everything when it comes to the predictive power of genetics, but we do know that many factors can mitigate or enhance the function of our genes.
One study that will help illustrate this balance between genetics and our environment is a mouse study in which two genetically identical pregnant mice were fed a chemical known to cause endocrine disruption (bisphenol A or ‘BPA’).
They were both fed the chemical, but each mouse was given different diets (with one supplemented with folic acid, choline, betaine and vitamin b12). The offspring of the mouse without the enhanced diet was markedly affected, and had severe metabolic imbalance and was obese. The other mouse's offspring was unaffected.
Even in the face of toxic exposure, our genes can be 'helped' by our actions.
In the case of mental health, even the development of severe mental health conditions is contingent on genetic and environmental factors.
Environmental Risk Factors
Some environmental risk factors that make us more susceptible to mental health conditions are chemical exposure, childhood abuse or trauma, and a poor diet.
Increasingly, our homes and workplaces are inundated with toxins that are implicated in affecting our hormone, metabolic and neurological functions.
Limiting our exposure to toxins by purchasing clean products and organic produce is a significant first step, but if you are already experiencing symptoms or have a condition, it may be beneficial to have your toxic burden assessed.
Functional medicine testing can assess toxic levels of heavy metals and carcinogenic chemicals present in your body. There are many safe and effective ways to remove these toxins safely from your body to restore balance. You can read more about functional medicine's approach to toxicity here.
Your diet is a vital foundation for your mental and physical wellness. A poor diet that is high in processed foods, refined sugars, and unhealthy fats can wreak havoc on every system in your body.
There is ample evidence that implicates diet and nutrient deficiencies with the incidence, progression, and severity of many mental health conditions including depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Even a 'healthy' diet can cause major biochemical problems. It is common to see a patient with a very healthy diet come in with complex, undiagnosed symptoms like general anxiety, autoimmune dysfunction, migraines, migrating pain and mood swings - and when I put them on a specific healing diet, their symptoms significantly improve.
The example patient above was reacting to soy and gluten - once she removed the foods from her diet and her symptoms improved, we then treated the underlying bacterial infection that caused the food sensitivity in the first place.
Food allergies and sensitivities can cause a wide range of symptoms and many times do not come with any gastrointestinal distress.
For her, treating only her anxiety would have helped her little in the long run, as the inflammation caused by her underlying problem would have continued to strain her body and would have probably led to more symptoms or conditions.
CHILDHOOD, PHYSICAL OR EMOTIONAL TRAUMA
In many cases of mental illness, trauma - whether experienced as a child or as an adult - can play a significant role in the severity and progression of a disorder.
Past psychological trauma, if not effectively processed, can affect the physical body by causing an overstimulation of various parts of the brain responsible for metabolism, cognition, fear and stress responses.
Trauma can cause you to become more fearful and keep your mind and body in a constantly stressed state - this is called a sympathetic dominance state or 'flight/fight/freeze'.
For many people, this process continues for decades. We all have some degree of trauma or pain in our past and unless we deal with it in some way, it can hinder our quality of life and health.
I often advocate my patients to utilize meditation exercises, talk therapy, EFT or other interventions to assist in the healing process.
Many of my patients, especially those with long-term chronic illness suffer from complex PSTD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and notice beneficial improvements in their physical and mental health with proper support.
Psychological trauma has been shown to impact the expression of various genes which scientists believe is partly why people with a history of abuse have increased health problems in adulthood.
Since gene expression can be influenced by negative factors, genes can also beneficially affected by healthy positive factors. Diet, lifestyle, and reducing toxic exposure/toxicity can shift genes to express health instead of physical or mental symptoms.
Suffering from severe symptoms is mentally and emotionally exhausting. Many people are not surrounded by those who are emotionally supportive or who are even dismissive.
Creating healthy emotional boundaries with others and creating for yourself a healthy physical and emotional environment can help you recover - whether from a recent illness, an injury or a condition.
Just as it is essential not only to treat superficial symptoms, it is also just as important not to neglect nutrition, environment, potential toxin burden, genetics, family history, patient history, and any current medications or supplement use.
These are all factors that can affect brain chemistry in a profound way.
The Whole Picture
Your mental health is just one facet of your overall health. The purpose of a functional medicine evaluation is to isolate potential factors that may be making your medical condition or symptoms worse.
In many cases, interventions such as making dietary changes, addressing nutritional deficiencies and assessing neurotransmitter function can yield remarkable changes in an individual.