By Rob Verkerk PhD, founder, executive and scientific director
Last week saw the passage of the 56th Annual Conference of the American College of Nutrition (ACN). This year’s focus was brain health. That’s wholly fitting given the World Health Organization (WHO) has recently opined, in its October 2015 update to its fact sheet on the subject, that “depression is [now] the leading cause of disability worldwide.” The WHO also recognises that anxiety and depression are major contributors to the overall global burden of disease. But when you add the burden of just two additional brain-related conditions, namely Alzheimer’s disease and autism, it becomes apparent that the burden of brain-related disorders in contemporary society outweigh any of the ‘big killer’ diseases like heart disease and cancer. These two diseases have long resided at the top of tables of leading causes of mortality in industrialised countries.
Apart from hosting such superstars in the brain health area like physician and neurologist, Dr David Perlmutter, whose book Brain Maker is now out, following the success of his previous book Grain Brain, there were many other speakers of note. It was a privilege for me to be asked to speak on the subject of methylation at the event.
Rather than giving you a blow by blow account of the event and the many important scientific findings and clinical interventions that were revealed during the course of the conference, we felt it would be more apt to summarise here some of the important ‘take homes’ that were referred to by many of the speakers. We’ve divided these into two sections, those that predispose a person to brain-related disorders, and simple brain health fixes that help to support long-term brain health. These lists are deliberately short and serve only to highlight some of the greatest problems and remedies to this huge problem. We’ve also appended a physician training video by William Walsh PhD that deals, in its 2h 16 min duration, with one particular aspect of brain health, methylation, in considerable detail.
What factors predispose you to brain-related disorders?
There are a wide range of factors related to our genes, diets and environment that predispose us to mental health problems. One of the most common responses from the mainstream medical profession is prescription of psychiatric drugs. In the US, there are more about 250 million prescriptions issued annually for just the 10 top selling drugs used for treatment of anxiety and depression. There are over 8 million kids in the US on psychiatric drugs, particularly for ‘treatment’ of ADHD, depression and anxiety. These drugs interfere with neurotransmitters or their uptake and accordingly have low efficacy, especially among certain biotypes, and cause a very high rate of well-recognised side effects, including psychosis, suicide and death.
However, the disturbances in brain chemistry that cause general practitioners and psychiatrists to prescribe drugs occurs nearly always after diagnosis of a specific condition, itself the result of an imbalance in brain chemistry. Below we look at some of the major factors that may predispose an individual to initial imbalances, ones that nearly always respond better to carefully considered nutrient, as opposed to drug, therapies:
- Insufficient physical activity. Sedentary lifestyles are a major contributor to mood imbalances, depression and anxiety, and over time, increase the risk of age-related neuro-degeneration associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
- High n-6 to n-3 essential fatty acid ratio in the diet. Western diets, especially ones high in processed and ready-made foods, are very high in polyunsaturated (n-6) fats, e.g. vegetable oils. Common ratios exceed 20:1, when most people benefit from intake ratios under 4:1.
- Methylation and transsulfuration defects. The majority of people who suffer depression, anxiety, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia suffer from genetic defects or nutrient malabsorption issues which prevent them from methylating normally. This is vital for numerous processes, including DNA repair, detoxification and the production of balanced levels of neurotransmitters required for normal brain function and cognition
- Poor gut health. Owing to the ‘gut-brain connection’, poor gut health is directly related to decreases in cognitive function and brain-related disorder
- Low micronutrient status. The high consumption of carbohydrate-based diets with foods of low nutrient density means that many people consume foods that are low in vitamin B6, B12, folate, magnesium and zinc. These nutrients are particularly important for pathways required to generate balanced levels of neurotransmitters (notably dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline/adrenaline).
Simple brain health fixes
The following suggestions are simple interventions that are intended to counter the above predisposing factors. We would always strongly recommend these approaches in favour of use of psychiatric drugs that work to interfere with, rather than re-balance, brain chemistry.
- Be active. You should be physically active at least 6 out of every 7 days, with more intense activity of over 30 minutes occurring at least 3 times weekly
- Maintain a dietary n-6: n-3 ratio below 4:1. Reduce polyunsaturated fat intake, especially in processed and ready-made foods, and supplement daily (at least 5 g) with a high quality fish oil or other Omega-3 product
- Check your methylation index and lower it if it exceeds 4. The best way to determine if you have a methylation imbalance is to measure your S-adenosylmethionine (SAM) and S-adenosylhomocysteine (SAH) ratio. This can be done via any physician or nutritional therapist able to commission blood tests with a lab that tests for plasma levels of SAM and SAH. Normal methylators have a ratio of less than 4. If yours is greater than 4, seek support from a suitably qualified nutritional therapist or practitioner, especially one who uses genetic tests of single–nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in your methylation and neurotransmitter cycles
- Fix your gut. It’s not an easy process, but an excellent starting point is taking on board the guidelines we offer in our Food4Health guidelines
- Low micronutrient status. Apart from eating a balanced and varied diet that is largely unprocessed (above), most imbalances can be rectified by supplementing with differing amounts of B6, methyl folate, methylcobalamin (B12), vitamin D3, magnesium and zinc. It isn’t possible to stipulate exactly what amounts are suitable, given differing amounts of each are required to rectify different imbalances and conditions. Levels should be individualised following guidance by a suitably qualified and experienced healthcare practitioner. More information is available in the video presentation by Dr Walsh below.
Methylation and brain health
This may be a personal opinion, but I know there are others who share it: William Walsh PhD, the founder of the Walsh Research Institute, one of the speakers at the ACN conference, may possess the single most valuable knowledge base anywhere in the world required to turn around the way our healthcare systems deal with the blight of brain disorders that are now crippling society. Since he established his foundation in 1982, he has built a database on over 30,000 mental health patients and controls, including 3 million lab chemistries. He has found that over 60% of patients suffering anxiety, depression and psychosis suffer a major methylation imbalance (over- or under-methylation).
In the video below, you can find out from Dr Walsh more about methylation for brain disorders and how to fix them, using genetic tests, blood tests and nutrients. This information is ground-breaking and potentially life changing.
William Walsh PhD presentation at the Physician Education Workshop, “Mastering Brain Chemistry”, January 23-26, 2014; Irvine, California
Buy Dr Walsh’s book, “Nutrient Power: Heal your biochemistry and heal your brain.”