Welcome to the seventh article in The OCD series. I’m Francesca, a Nutritionist who has lived with OCD since I was 10. At age 15 and then again at age 29, I hit rock bottom with OCD – it was so distressing and debilitating that it left me feeling suicidal and at one point, partially housebound. Now, after investing time, money and effort in creating a mental health tool box and fighting for my health and happiness, I have been living largely free of OCD since 2012. And I’m sharing everything I’ve learned to support people with OCD who want to get their lives back.
The first article in The OCD series looked at a key nutritional tool that supports your nervous system and mental health. More recently, we've looked at the role of trauma in OCD and anxiety, and what my experience of OCD relapse was like.
This article returns the focus to nutritional biochemistry, and discusses stress-driven and genetic factors that can play a role in OCD and other mental health conditions, such as generalized anxiety, ADHD, childhood behavioural problems, tics, Bipolar Disorder, all types of depression and schizophrenia.
Pyrrole Disorder / Pyroluria
Teens and adults…. Are your moods on a rollercoaster? Do you explode in anger, affecting your relationships with loved ones, teachers and colleagues? Does sleep elude you? Low morning appetite? Do stress and change make everything worse for you? Do you experience paranoia and delusional thoughts? Have you experienced ongoing nausea, abdominal pain or other gut issues that elimination diets haven’t helped? Have you been diagnosed with depression, Bipolar Disorder, schizophrenia or OCD? Do you use alcohol or drugs to 'self-medicate'? Did your parents or grandparents use alcohol or drugs to 'self-medicate', too?
Mums and Dads…. Does your child cry easily and have frequent tantrums? Do they have little appetite? Get ill frequently, or become car sick easily? Have skin issues that creams from the doctor aren’t helping? Is keeping to their routines VERY important to them? Do they struggle with concentration and learning? Have they been diagnosed with OCD, Bipolar Disorder, ADHD, learning difficulties or something else? Is your teen violent or involved in crime? And do your son’s or daughter’s symptoms and behaviours get worse during growth spurts or times of change?
These can be red flags for pyroluria, also known as Pyrrole Disorder (and in the past, as Mauve factor or Malvaria). All humans produce pyrroles but when an excess of these is produced (identified by having a high concentration of pyrroles in your urine), many cognitive, affective and neurological symptoms can occur.
Pyroluria is not uncommon and is treatable with nutrient therapy first and foremost. It was first discovered in the 1950s by Drs Abram Hoffer, Carl Pfeiffer and Humphrey Osmond, all pioneers of nutrient therapy for mental health.
For the person with pyroluria, the pyrroles (byproducts of heamoglobin synthesis) bind to a number of nutrients, espeically vitamin B6 and zinc, leaving them unavailable for use by your body. Note that B6 and zinc are particualry important for nervous and mental health, digestion and immune fucntion. These nutrients, bound to pyrroles, are rapidly excreted from your body via urine, meaning the person with pryoluria can become deficient or severely deficient in these nutrients. Stress seems to worsen pyroluria and there is evidence that it can have a genetic basis, with the disorder sometimes running in families.
Common signs that pyroluria should be investigated by your health professional:
poor appetite (especially in the morning)
white spots on the nails
aching or cracking joints
sensitivity to noise and bright lights
dislike of eating meat
poor dream recall or distressing dreams
frequent colds and flus, infections
being diagnosed with ADHD or autism as a child, or learning difficulties
And if you have OCD, research has found that zinc and other micronutrients are often deficient in people affected by OCD.
The good news – testing and treatment
A nutritionist or naturopath, particularly those who offer support for mental health, will be familiar with pyrolruia and can support you with testing and advise you on diet, lifestyle, and high-quality nutritional therapy to help you reduce the symptoms of pyrolruia.
It’s not beneficial to simply start taking supplements without seeking professional help, as many supermarket and pharmacy supplements are synthetic and non-bioavailable (poorly absorbed). They can get into your blood but not necessarily into your cells, interfere with the absorption of nutrients in your food, and therefore can actually worsen your health concerns by deepening existing deficiencies. They can also skew the results of your blood tests, which is why your doctor may have told you everything looked "normal" when you last had your blood tested - and why you still feel so unwell.
Invest your money in seeing a nutritionist knowledgeable about nutritional therapy for mental health – it will save you both money, further suffering and stress in the long run.
SNPs – genetic variations that can affect your health
Now let’s look at SNPs (pronounced ‘snips’ and stands for Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms). SNPs can affect your body’s nutritional needs and status, ability to detoxify and repair, and in turn, your mental health.
When cells within our bodies divide to make new cells, they copy our DNA structure. However, sometimes a single building block of DNA – known as a nucleotide – will be substituted by another during the copying process. These resulting alterations in our genetic code (for genes are made of DNA) are SNPs.
SNPs are fairly common and are passed from parents to their children. They are *not* 'genetic mutations', although they are sometimes incorrectly referred to this way. It is estimated that there are millions of different SNPs in humans, and while many have no apparent health effects, some SNPs can affect human health. One way they may do this is by affecting the way a person metabolizes specific nutrients, increasing the likelihood of various health problems, physical and mental. For example, you may have heard that women who have certain genetic variations are more likely to develop cancers of the breast and ovaries. This is why some women have genetic testing (especially if they have a family history of female cancers) and then choose to undergo hysterectomy or mastectomy (as the actress Angelina Jolie did).
When it comes to mental health, SNPs that affect how we metabolize certain nutrients and convert certain substances in our bodies can play a role in the likelihood of mental health problems occurring. Perhaps one of the most well known SNPs is the MTHFR gene SNP, The MTHFR gene provides instruction for making the methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase enzyme involved in methylation, a process that occurs in almost all cells in the body. The methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase enzyme is also needed to metabolize vitamin B9, or folate. Because B vitamins are crucial for healthy function and structure of your nervous system, having an SNP on your MTHFR gene can lead to B vitamin deficiencies, impaired methylation and mental health symptoms.
People with MTHFR SNPs can be more prone to OCD, depression, addiction, tics, Tourette Syndrome, schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, chemical sensitivities, insomnia, fertility problems and possibly other mental health problems.
MTHFR SNPs are reported to be higher among Hispanics and Italians, and people of Hispanic and Italian descent.
The good news – testing and treatment
A nutritionist can support you with being tested for SNPs and then guide you on nutrition and lifestyle tools to support your unique genetic make up and reduce the negative effects of your SNP. Note that people with MTHFR SNPs need to be especially careful when taking supplements, as some supplements will significantly worsen your symptoms owing to 1) overloading your body with non-bioavailable forms of nutrients that your body has reduced ability to metabolize because of the SNP. Always keep in mind that synthetic, non-bioavailable vitamins commonly found in supermarket and pharmacy supplements, such as folic acid, aren't formulated by knowledgable health professionals.
So again, it is worth your health, happiness and future investing in seeing a qualified nutritionist or naturopath for support. We can provide you with nutritionally bioavailable supplements for your individual situation, that will help you feel better and not cause further harm. Additionally, because stress, trauma, environment and poor diet play a significant role in triggering the effects of a SNP, supplementation alone isn’t your magic fix. Your nutritionist or naturopath can provide guidance around diet, sleep hygiene, stress reduction practises, knowledge of environmental chemicals to avoid and more, to help you minimize the effects of your SNP.
It’s empowering to know your health isn’t determined solely by our genetics, and that you can take actions to support your physical and mental health and happiness, whichever genetic hand of cards you're playing with.
I hope this article helps you better understand some common factors that may play a role in your mental health, or the mental health of someone you love. If you’d like support with improving your mental health , get in touch for a chat.