We are born with 100 billion neurons, and with every neuron in contact with 1,000 other cells (on average) there are more than 100 trillion synaptic connections in our brain! However, the neurotransmitters that relay information within these synapses are not static from birth and require constant synthesis and breakdown for our brains to work properly.
Some key nutrients that are required in the production of neurotransmitters from amino acids include vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), vitamin B9 (folate), zinc, copper, and iron as well as those that provide methyl groups such as SAMe and methionine. Ideally our diets would provide ample levels of each essential nutrient and cofactor but the reality is that modern agriculture produces food that is less nutritionally replete than it was for our ancestors, and denatured food predominates in the Western diet. A Health Canada report from 2012 found that “10-35% of Canadians from most age and sex groups consumed folate, vitamin B6, and zinc in adequate amounts.”
Zinc deficiency is associated with a range of physical complaints such as poor immune function, impaired or insufficient sense of smell, and reduced stomach acid. The mental effects of zinc deficiency are less well known but include neurodegenerative disorders (such as Alzheimer’s disease), anxiety, depression, learning problems and behavioral issues.
The problems associated with zinc deficiency may be compounded or amplified by an excess of copper or heavy metals in the body. Zinc may help to displace other minerals pushing them from storage into circulation, so accurate assessment and careful dosing is important to ensure that mental-emotional concerns don’t worsen when supplementing with zinc. Assessing the copper:zinc ratio in the blood is an excellent starting point for identifying one of the key nutritional imbalances that can upset our mental chemistry.
Methylation is a key process for turning genes on or off in our DNA (epigenetic control), and in regulating neurotransmitter levels. Under-methylation may lead to depression that responds well to anti-depressant medication, while over-methylation may lead to depression that worsens on anti-depressants! Methylation is not controlled by a single protein, nor is it entirely influenced by a single gene defect such as MTHFR. It is a tug of war with various genetic and environmental elements at play and it can be influenced by dietary and supplements to help you achieve optimal health both physically and mentally.
DHA Laboratory offers metabolic testing to provide a snapshot of whether your body is currently under-methylating or over-methylating, as well as assessing both copper and zinc levels in the blood. This information is invaluable to a trained naturopathic physician in helping you to balance your brain now and for improved mental function in the years to come!
- Ackerman S. Discovering the Brain. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1992. 6, The Development and Shaping of the Brain.Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK234146/
- Walsh, W. Nutrient Power. Skyhorse publishing 2012, 2014. Appendix C
- Health Canada 2012. Do Canadian Adults Meet Their Nutrient Requirements Through Food Intake Alone? ISBN. 978-1-100-20026-2