In my borderline exhausting thirst to quench the passionate fire in my belly to learn all I can about healing, health, and nutrition, I find it hard to pass up on any research and learning opportunities set forth at my fingertips. This is why I became a naturopathic doctor and fell in love with functional medicine. They have been able to provide me with the base of knowledge and a framework to fully comprehend, filter, and apply all the latest integrative health research into clinic.
A recent trend amongst doctors and famous health experts has been the sharing of their knowledge through an inordinate, and sometimes overwhelming, amount of webinars and summits. However, I’m never disappointed when I tune in, and this week is The Mental Wellness Summit!
I am very excited about this one, as emotional health has always been a big focus in my practice. I enjoy studying the various aspects of psychology and neurobiochemistry, because it is so complex. (In fact, many of my clients have found themselves giggling as my eyes glaze over while I trace biochemical pathways in my head in order to correlate them with their mind-body symptoms.)
One of the advantages of many experts speaking about one subject is that it makes it very evident that one theory on any disorder or imbalance won’t do. Today’s experts on the summit were no exception to the proof of the complexity of emotional issues. This provided validation of my cautious approach to any simplified viewpoint on mental wellness. This is because there is a wide array of interactions and associations of various mediators and triggers that are implicated in mood balance.
Below I’ve listed a few of the factors (and some of their references) that I consider whenever someone approaches me for wellness support for emotional health. These include the following:
- Inflammation and oxidative stress
- Genetic variations (such as SNPs related to MTHFR, DRD2, DRD4, COMT, CBS, serotonin transporters (5HTT),)
- Nutrition and assimilation
- Dietary triggers and deficiencies (including cerebral folate deficiency)
- Mitochondrial dysfunctions and imbalances
- Hormonal imbalances
- Stress & cortisol levels
- The Microbiome
- Environmental toxicants
- Blood sugar levels
- Stealth infections
- Childhood adversity
- Emotional tone and spirituality
- Brain trauma
- Hyper or hypo-activity in a brain region
- …and more!
This means any attempt to reduce a mood disorder to one chemical is short-sighted to me. I became aware of the studies on the limitations of focusing only on one specific neurotransmitter or biochemical pathway for brain health a few years ago. This occurred during my integration of the functional medicine matrix and some very controversial studies that related the efficacy of mood drugs relatively equal to active placebo in depression treatment.
Dr. Kelly Brogan, a well-known functional psychiatrist, was interviewed today and she discussed how this “democratization of health information” can be used to empower us to make the best decisions for our health and bodies. She expressed her beliefs in the pitfalls about treating one target in the brain in this well written article on Dr. Mercola’s website. She states:
What are these medications actually doing?! The truth is, we have very little idea. We like to cling to simple explanations, but even the name of the various antidepressants, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors is misleading.
They are far from selective. An important analysis20 by the former director of the NIMH makes claimed that antidepressants “create perturbations in neurotransmitter functions” causing the body to compensate through a series of compensatory adaptations which occur after “chronic administration” leading to brains that function, after a few weeks, in a way that is “qualitatively as well as quantitatively different from the normal state.”
Changes in beta-adrenergic receptor density, serotonin autoreceptor sensitivity, and serotonin turnover all struggle to compensate for the assault of the medication.
Andrews et al21 calls this “oppositional tolerance,” and demonstrate through a careful meta-analysis of 46 studies demonstrating that patient’s risk of relapse is directly proportionate to how “perturbing” the medication is, and is always higher than placebo (44.6% vs 24.7%). They challenge the notion that findings of decreased relapse on continued medication represent anything other than drug-induced response to discontinuation of a substance to which the body has developed tolerance. (Mercola, January 16, 2014)
The Amazing Molecule of Social Connection, Bonding, Attraction, & Mood Alteration
Now that you understand that no one chemical is responsible for mood, there is one new-approaching rock-star of a molecule that has caught my attention, oxytocin.
Oxytocin is a neuropeptide well-studied for its role in social attachment, maternal bonding, lactation, and induction of labor. However, recently, more attention has been drawn to this protein-like neuronal signaling molecules for many other functions including its impact on mood, psychological issues, addictions, relationship health, social behavioral patterns, and trust. Furthermore, it’s also been implicated in treatments for various emotional, social, and brain disorders, including autism.
Trudy Scott, CN, most famous for her work with pyroluria, anxiety, and amino acids provided e a great summary of studies with oxytocin and its link to social interaction and connectedness:
There are a number of studies that support the use of oxytocin for improving eye-contact, facial recognition and social anxiety:
- Oxytocin increases eye contact during a real-time, naturalistic social interaction in males with and without autism
- Intranasal oxytocin in the treatment of autism spectrum disorders: a review of literature and early safety and efficacy data in youth
- Effects of oxytocin on attention to emotional faces in healthy volunteers and highly socially anxious males
Here’s another one:
Oxytocin increases gaze to the eye region of human faces
Read more about this amazing molecule and some simple tips on how to put all this information into action here.
Interaction between oxytocin receptor DNA methylation and genotype is associated with risk of postpartum depression in women without depression in pregnancy. Front. Genet., 21 July 2015
Stuebe AM, Grewen K, Meltzer-Brody S. Association Between Maternal Mood and Oxytocin Response to Breastfeeding. Journal of Women’s Health. 2013;22(4):352-361. doi:10.1089/jwh.2012.3768.
Saphire-Bernstein, B. M. Way, H. S. Kim, D. K. Sherman, S. E. Taylor. Oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) is related to psychological resources. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2011; 108 (37): 15118
Neumann ID. Brain oxytocin: a key regulator of emotional and social behaviours in both females and males. J Neuroendocrinol. 2008 Jun;20(6):858-65. doi: 10.1111/j.
Oxytocin: the monogamy hormone? Medical News Today. November 26, 2013. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/269365.php
Estrogen and Oxytocin: McCarthy MM. Estrogen modulation of oxytocin and its relation to behavior. Adv Exp Med Biol. 1995;395:235-45
McGregor IS, Callaghan PD, Hunt GE. From ultrasocial to antisocial: a role for oxytocin in the acute reinforcing effects and long-term adverse consequences of drug use? British Journal of Pharmacology. 2008;154(2):358-368. doi:10.1038/bjp.2008.132.
Mottolese R, Redouté J, Costes N, Le Bars D, Sirigu A. Switching brain serotonin with oxytocin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2014;111(23):8637-8642. doi:10.1073/pnas.1319810111.
Variation in the oxytocin receptor gene is associated with increased risk for anxiety, stress and depression in individuals with a history of exposure to early life stress. J Psychiatr Res. 2014 Dec;59:93-100. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2014.08.021. Epub 2014 Sep 16.
Evidence that genetic variation in the oxytocin receptor (OXTR) gene influences social cognition in ADHD. Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2010 May 30;34(4):697-702. doi: 10.1016/j.pnpbp.2010.03.029. Epub 2010 Mar 27.
Kosfeld M, Heinrichs M, Zak PJ, Fischbacher U, Fehr E. Oxytocin increases trust in humans. Nature. 2005 Jun 2;435(7042):673-6.