By Sarah A LoBisco, ND

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Epigenetics is a hot topic!! It is the major theme in many of my readings and trainings. It is the science that explains that nature’s imprint on our genes isn’t the final say in whether we get a disease. This genetic blueprint is only expressed when environmental triggers hit these sensitivities and predispositions. It’s exciting to think about the kind of power we have with this information! This feeling of empowerment is the purpose behind my monthly Top Holistic Health Reads  under the category of “Nutrigenomics”.

Thankfully, medical treatments are now slowly opening up beyond the shortsighted view that only looks for answers in genetics to our chronic lifestyle conditions. Their solution is still predominately to block pathways of diseases from downstream effects. Though helpful for some, it can lead to side effects and long-term health complications from never addressing the underlying cause.

The interplay and delicate balance of the whole picture in an individualized health approach is still not “mainstream”. Yet, we are getting there.

In fact, a recent meta-analysis found compelling evidence about the therapeutic benefit of exercise to cancer survival. Although there are always limitations to finding studies, a little movement can be beneficial and can’t hurt.

The researchers concluded the following:

There was consistent evidence from 27 observational studies that physical activity is associated with reduced all-cause, breast cancer–specific, and colon cancer–specific mortality. There is currently insufficient evidence regarding the association between physical activity and mortality for survivors of other cancers. Randomized controlled trials of exercise that included biomarker endpoints suggest that exercise may result in beneficial changes in the circulating level of insulin, insulin-related pathways, inflammation, and, possibly, immunity; however, the evidence is still preliminary.

Source: Rachel Ballard-Barbash, Christine M. Friedenreich, Kerry S. Courneya, Sameer M. Siddiqi, Anne McTiernan, Catherine M. Alfano. Physical Activity, Biomarkers, and Disease Outcomes in Cancer Survivors: A Systematic Review . J Natl Cancer Inst. 2012;104(11):815-840. Medscape Special Report. April 3, 2013.

What about in the area of mental health?

It seems this area of medicine is still prescribing diagnosis and treatment  solely based on symptoms.

Dr. Amen discusses this role with depressive symptoms (emphasis mine):

Let me be clear, I am not opposed to medication for anxiety and depression.  I have been a psychiatrist for over 30 years and have helped many people overcome life threatening mood disorders with these medications.  But, unfortunately, I’ve also made people worse, especially before I started looking at the brain … when I was metaphorically throwing medicated-tipped darts in the dark at my patients.  Medications can be very effective when targeted properly after a thorough work up, but they can also be a disaster when not used appropriately, and trigger manic episodes and even suicidal or aggressive behavior.

While I am not opposed to medication for anxiety and depression, I am deeply opposed to the indiscriminate use of these medications and the way many physicians and other healthcare professionals prescribe them, without a comprehensive work up and without clearly telling patients about the potential side effects, poor long term outcome studies, and alternative treatment options.

The rampant use of these medications is hurting our society.  It has been estimated that the use of antidepressants have gone up 400% in the last two decades and that nearly a quarter of all females (23%) between the ages of 40-59 are taking them.[i]

Source: Amen, D. Stop Throwing Medicated Tipped Darts in the Dark. Amen Clinics: Dr. Amen’s Blog. April 2, 2013.

As Dr. Amen concludes, the answer is in an individualistic approach to looking at the whole person. This includes looking at the interplay of sensitive genetics with lifestyle factors, supplements, and even medications if needed.

Below are some article summaries that support that brain health is determined by genetics interacting with the environment (bold emphasis mine). My blog on provides some nutrigeonmic solutions via supplements and lifestyle to modulate brain health.


Genetics Determine Disease

1. DNA SNPs to Psychiatric Disorders

Investigators from the Cross-Disorder Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium have found that autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder (BD), major depressive disorder (MDD), and schizophrenia share common genetic risk factors.

Specifically, the results of the genome-wide association study (GWAS) reveal single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in 2 genes — CACNA1C and CACNB2 — both of which are involved in the balance of calcium in brain cells, are implicated in several of these disorders, and could provide a potential target for new treatments.

Caroline Cassels. Five Major Psychiatric Disorders Genetically Linked. Medscape Medical News > Psychiatry. Feb 27, 2013.

2. The Happy Neurotransmitter


For the first time in humans, scientists measured the release of a specific peptide, a neurotransmitter called hypocretin, that greatly increased when subjects were happy but decreased when they were sad.

The exciting part is these findings suggest that boosting hypocretin could elevate both mood and alertness in humans which could lead to possible new treatments for psychiatric disorders like depression by targeting measureable abnormalities in brain chemistry.

In addition to measuring hypocretin, the study also measured for the first time the release of another peptide called melanin concentrating hormone, or MCH.  Researchers found that its release was minimal in waking but greatly increased during sleep, suggesting a key role for this peptide in making humans sleepy.

‘These results suggest a previously unappreciated emotional specificity in the activation of arousal and sleep in humans,” Siegel said.  ”The findings suggest that abnormalities in the pattern of activation of these systems may contribute to a number of psychiatric disorders.”  Siegel noted that hypocretin antagonists are now being developed by several drug companies for use as sleeping pills.  The current work suggests that these drugs will alter mood as well sleep tendency.

Amen Clinics. Is This Peptide the Key to Happiness. Dr. Amen’s Blog. March 26, 2013.

3. Gut that Right-Female Microbiome Advantage!

(Remember, the hormones affect neurotransmitters, moods, and immunity).

Dr. Leyer noted that many autoimmune disorders are more prevalent among females, and that this may reflect gender differences in the composition of the gut microbiome. “Microbiome manipulations can provoke testosterone-dependent protection from autoimmunity in a genetically high-risk rodent model,” he said, reflecting on a recent study of transplantation of gut microbes from male to female animals (Markle J, et al. Science 2013).

“You can blunt the development of type 1 diabetes, which has a marked female predominance. The female mice given a male microbiome transplant had a reduced rate of developing type 1 diabetes. The power of this intervention is quite remarkable. The microbes control the immune system, and they also influence hormone signaling.”

West, A. Probiotics May Have Role In Diabetes Prevention. Holistic Primary Care: UpShots. March 28, 2013.


GENDER or Behavior?

I’m Smarter than YOU- Boys vs. Girls in School Grades

Researchers from University of Georgia and Columbia University sought out to answer a common question any parent with boys and girls has probably asked, “why do girls get better grades in elementary school than boys-even when they perform worse on standardized tests?”  The results of the study which are published in the current issue of Journal of Human Resources suggest that it’s because of their classroom behavior, which may lead teachers to assign girls higher grades than their male counterparts.

Amen Clinics. Why Girls Do Better in School. Dr. Amen’s Blog. 2/19/13.

Dietary Effects on Mood

1. Mind-Body-Soda?

Older adults who down several diet drinks a day may have a heightened risk of developing depression, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that of more than 260,000 older adults in a U.S. survey, those who had at least four daily servings of artificially sweetened soda, iced tea or fruit punch were at increased risk of being diagnosed with depression in the next decade.

People with a taste for sugar-sweetened drinks also showed a higher depression risk versus those who avoided the beverages. But the link was weaker than the one between diet drinks and depression, according to the study, which was released Jan. 8.

Health Day. Diet Drinks Tied to Depression Risk in Older Adults: Study. Medline Plus. January 8, 2013.

2. Gluten and Mood-Skin

This differs from gluten sensitivity, in which symptoms are similar to celiac disease but not as immediate and arise over time. People with gluten sensitivity also complain of headaches, muscle and joint weakness, skin problems, and neurological issues like brain fog and depression. There is no way to definitively diagnose it, but a recent study led by University of Maryland’s Center for Celiac Research confirmed that gluten sensitivity is distinct from celiac disease in the type of immune response it elicits from the body, providing direct evidence of its mechanism and existence.

In sensitive individuals, gluten acts in two ways. First, it alters the integrity of the gut, creating cracks in the gut lining that allow toxins to recirculate back into the system. Second, because gluten-sensitive people cannot properly digest gluten, these large molecules enter the bloodstream, and the immune system recognizes them as invaders, activating an immune response that increases inflammation, which in turn can result in acne. This kind of immune response also triggers the release of insulin, which results in raised hormone levels, another cause of acne.

Henninger, M. Gluten: The Greatest Enemy of Clear Skin. Huffington Post. 2/8/13.

3. Protein Brain Power

A new study finds that a protein-packed breakfast could keep you feeling fuller, and eating less, all day.

Subjects completed questionnaires and provided blood samples throughout the day. Prior to dinner, a brain scan using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was performed to track brain signals that control food motivation and reward-driven eating behavior.

The subjects who ate the high-protein breakfast reported feeling satiated, and their brain activity supported that, with low activity in the areas responsible for controlling food cravings. The high-protein breakfast also reduced evening snacking on high-fat and high-sugar foods, compared to the other groups.

AFP RelaxNews. Protein-Packed Breakfast Could Be The Key To Weight Loss. Daily News ( March 28, 2013.

4. Dumb Brain on Sugar

Dr. Perlmutter contends that many forms of cognitive dysfunction including Alzheimer’s Disease are largely preventable through dietary changes. Pointing to findings from the massive Rotterdam study—an ongoing survey of age-associated diseases in nearly 11,000 citizens of the Dutch city—he noted that people with impaired glucose tolerance in their mid-50s had double the risk of developing Alzheimer’s later in life.

He pointed out that there is a significant correlation between hemoglobin A1c and loss of actual brain volume. “You lose 0.250% of brain volume annually even at a HbA1c of 5. In the range of 5.9 to 9.0, you’re losing 0.5% of your brain volume every year!”

The APOe4 allele, widely recognized as a predictive factor for development of Alzheimer’s is not as dramatic a risk factor as the A1C changes in terms of brain volume change, said Dr. Perlmutter, whose new book, Grain Brain, will be published this Fall.

Goldman, E. How Hyperglycemia Drives Cognitive Decline. Holistic Primary Care: Upshtos. 3/27/13.

5. The Brain-Gut Connection

(This could trump the gender- gut genetic connection above!)

Research has also connected the gut’s probiotics to the brain via a conduit between the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system. The enteric nervous system is located in the abdominal region around the digestive tract. Many of our neurotransmitters are produced in this region and the neurons relay mind-body responses between the gut and the brain stem.

The researchers concluded: “Four weeks intake of a fermented milk with probiotics by healthy women affected activity of brain regions that control central processing of emotion and sensation.”

The research was led by Dr. Emeran Mayer, a UCLA professor of medicine and a specialist in gastroenterology. He is the Director of the Oppenheimer Center for Neurobiology of Stress. Dr. Mayer is well-known for his research in identifying the gut and its probiotic content as “the second brain.

Adams, C. Probiotics Change Brain Activity, Emotional Response. March 22nd 2013.


1. Mindfulness & Depression in Adolescents

Mar. 15, 2013 — Secondary school students who follow an in-class mindfulness programme report reduced indications of depression, anxiety and stress up to six months later. Moreover, these students were less likely to develop pronounced depression-like symptoms. The study, conducted by Professor Filip Raes (Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences, KU Leuven), is the first to examine mindfulness in a large sample of adolescents in a school-based setting…

The study was carried out at five middle schools in Flanders, Belgium. About 400 students between the ages of 13 and 20 took part. ..

Before the start of the training, both the test group (21%) and the control group (24%) had a similar percentage of students reporting evidence of depression. After the mindfulness training, that number was significantly lower in the test group: 15% versus 27% in the control group. This difference persisted six months after the training: 16% of the test group versus 31% of the control group reported evidence of depression.

Science Daily. Mindfulness at School Reduces (Likelihood Of) Depression-Related Symptoms in Adolescents. March 15, 2013.

2. Infections and Cognition

Note: IB=infectious burden

A measure of IB associated with stroke risk and atherosclerosis was independently associated with cognitive performance in this multiethnic cohort. Past infections may contribute to cognitive impairment.

Katan, M. Infectious burden and cognitive function (abstract). Neurology. March 26, 2013 vol. 80 no. 13 1209-1215.  doi: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e3182896e79

Now be sure to read about Healthy Brain Supplements at  and let me know your conclusion.