What is Genetic Medicine?
Genetic medicine is targeted medical treatment based on an individual’s genetic “map”. It does require some fancy labwork, some of which must be ordered by a doctor, although these days some tests are available online without a doctor’s order. Treatments vary but people often respond quite well to targeted vitamin therapies.
We all have two sets of genes, one of which we inherited from our mother, and one from our father. It’s the unique combination of those sets of genes that make us Us, at least on a biochemical, physiological level.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the MTHFR enzyme (and the MTHFR gene that codes for it). If not, maybe you’ve heard about methylated folate, the active form of the vitamin folate (AKA folic acid). Many people will have also heard about the supplement SAMe, a rather expensive option on the ever-broadening supplement shelf. These are all related, and they all participate in a particular physiological process called “methylation,” which has lots of downstream effects on the way our bodies function. That’s because methylation is a critical process that affects DNA, or our genetic information, and affects how each and every one of our cells function. It does this by directing cell regeneration. If the methylation process doesn’t work properly, the cell regeneration in every cell of our body is compromised.
Methylation has three big functions in the human body that have a huge impact on our overall health:
1. Cell repair of injured cells
2. Cell production (especially making those cells that “turn over” quickly, e.g. immune cells and blood cells, the cells in our intestines)
3. Neurological function and mental health
The MTHFR gene codes for an MTHFR enzyme that is responsible for adding a methyl group, or “methylating,” the folic acid and therefore acitvating it in our bodies. Remember that we have 2 sets of genes (1 from Mom and 1 from Dad), so we have two sets of genetic information to make the MTHFR enzyme.
In many people both sets of the genes work just fine, so they are able to make many functioning copies of the MTHFR enzyme.
However, in some people one of the sets of genetic information may be broken, making them less able to methylate folic acid than someone with two functioning sets.
And in some people, both sets are broken, which greatly decreases their ability to methylate folic acid. They are still able to do so, but only at about 30% of what a person with two functioning genes would be able to do. Remember that methylation is a critical process to so many aspects of human health.
Most people who have these defects don’t even know that they do, because you can survive with two broken copies. However, we’re beginning to understand that having defects in these genes can manifest in many different ways, especially in mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, often with people who have not responded well to pharmaceutical medications. Other problems that can manifest from these genetic defects include sleep problems, poor recovery from workouts, low energy, digestive problems, and many other issues.
In recent years a genetic test has become available that looks for defects in the genes that code for MTHFR. These tests are available from your doctor. If you’d like to learn more about methylation and the MTHFR genes and what this could mean for you, please contact your doctor.
Dr. Wilson is a Naturopathic Physician who practices in Seattle. Her website is: http://www.mindbodycenterforintegrativemedicine.com/