MTHFR: The Link Between ADD/ADHD, Folate, and Genetics

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Attention Deficit Disorders: Do Genetics Play a Role?

ADD and ADHD are some of the most common health issues in childhood, with ADHD affecting approximately 11% of children. The symptoms of hyperactivity, impulsivity, and/or inattention associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can affect life at home and at school with a significant impact on cognitive, academic, behavioral, emotional, and social functioning. Treatments for ADD and ADHD typically centers around stimulant medications like Ritalin and Adderall, which are associated with potentially serious side effects and don’t address the root cause of the disorders. In fact, there is growing evidence that ADD and ADHD may be associated with a genetic variation called MTHFR, which affects how folate and folic acid are metabolized in the body. Looking at the role of genetics in ADD/ADHD may shed light on promising new treatments for ADHD. 

What is MTHFR?

You may not have heard about MTHFR yet but it is a major player in many aspects of physical and emotional health. MTHFR stands for methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase and it is an enzyme that is involved in folate metabolism. Folate is a general term for a B vitamin (Vitamin B9) that comes in many forms including folic acid, which is the synthetic version commonly found in supplements and processed foods. Folic acid and folate are normally transformed by the body into Methyltetrahydrofolate (MTHF), which is the bioactive form of the B vitamin that your body needs for a variety of normal functions.

Unfortunately genetic variations in MTHFR are a big problem. Although the exact prevalence is not known, it is estimated that up to 40% of Caucasians have a mutation on one or more of the genes that normally produces the MTHFR enzyme, with varying frequencies in other populations. People who have an MTHFR variant are not able to properly process synthetic folic acid and they have a limited capacity to make MTHF.

Why is Folate So Important?

Activated folate, a.k.a. Methyltetrahydrofolate (MTHF) is an important part of something called the methylation cycle. This metabolic cycle is involved in neurotransmitter production, detoxification processes, and the regulation of inflammation. Activated folate is also needed for appropriate cell growth, which is why deficiencies in folate can lead to anemia.

Neurotransmitters are chemicals produced by the brain and nervous system that are used for communication throughout the body. These important chemical messengers include serotonin, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine, and melatonin. Neurotransmitters have potent effects on mood, energy, sleep, digestion, muscle and nerve function, memory, and cognition.

MTHFR variations have been associated with a number of health issues including mood disorders like depression, anxiety and schizophrenia, and neurobehavioral disorders like ADD/ADHD and autism. MTHFR mutations are also associated with an increased risk for heart disease, stroke, blood clots, chronic fatigue syndrome, migraines, infertility, and early miscarriage. Having an MTHFR variant may also alter someone’s response to certain medications, especially antidepressants.

Should My Child be Tested?

There is a simple blood test that your doctor can order to determine if your child has an MTHFR variant, and if so, which one. Many different labs offer this genetic testing although it is not always covered by insurance. Testing is important because depending on which (if any) MTHFR variants are found, this will help to guide treatment options. 

What is the Treatment for MTHFR?

Because MTHFR mutations are genetic there is no “cure” but luckily there are many treatments that can help reduce the health risks associated with this genetic condition. If your child has an MTHFR genetic variant talk to a physician who is knowledgeable about the condition so you may learn which specific supplement regimens may be appropriate for them.

There are also a number of simple things that you may also consider to support your child with ADD/ADHD and MTHFR:

  • Avoid Folic Acid: Folic acid is the synthetic form of the B vitamin, folate. People who have MTHFR variations can’t properly use folic acid and often don’t feel well after taking it. Many B vitamin supplements, multivitamins, energy drinks, protein bars, and processed foods contain synthetic folic acid. There are other forms of folate that are generally better for those with MTHFR including 5-MTHF, methylfolate, and folinic acid. The right dosage can vary greatly based on individual needs so talk to your physician before starting a folate supplement.
  • Folate Rich Foods: Consuming a diet of folate-rich foods including spinach, asparagus, chickpeas, beans, broccoli, and dark green leafy vegetables may be helpful for those with MTHFR. These foods naturally contain a form of folate that is more bioavailable and generally easier for the body to make use of. Rarely, people with MTHFR mutations may actually feel worse when they eat foods that are naturally high in folate, in which case you should discuss this issue with your doctor.
  • Avoid Food Additives: People with MTHFR variants tend to be more sensitive to chemicals and may have a harder time processing them and detoxifying. For this reason, avoid heavily processed foods and foods that contain heavy pesticide residues. Every year the Environmental Working Group compiles a list of foods that are highest in pesticide residues so that consumers can make healthier decisions at the grocery store. Additionally, food additives like artificial colors and sweeteners and MSG are well known to aggravate symptoms of ADD and ADHD and are best avoided.
  • Exercise: Physical activity can have amazing effects on mood and energy and may help to improve focus and attention in people with ADD/ADHD. A good goal is at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week. Spending time outdoors also seems to have a calming effect on the nervous system and may help with mood.
  • Blood sugar: Keeping blood sugar balanced by limiting simple carbohydrates and processed foods can help to improve mood, energy, attention, and focus. Simple carbohydrates are found in foods like candy, cookies, baked goods, bread, pasta, cereal, white rice, and white potatoes. These foods tend to spike blood sugar levels, worsening behavioral issues and hyperactivity. Spikes in blood sugar also tend to be followed by a crash in energy and mood. Eating moderate amounts of protein foods like meat, poultry, fish, beans, lentils, eggs, cheese, nuts, and seeds can help to stabilize blood sugar levels and keep mood and energy balanced.

Find Out More About MTHFR:

First read our article (an overview): What are Folic Acid, Folate, Methylfolate, and MTHFR, and Why Is Everyone Talking About Them?

Still want more information on MTHFR and folate metabolism? Below are some websites with tons of details on MTHFR and other related genetic variations. Remember, please don’t attempt to treat yourself or your family without consulting a physician familiar with MTHFR because it is all too easy to do more harm than good.

 

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Cori Burke, ND
Cori Burke, ND
Dr. Cori Burke is a licensed Naturopathic Physician with offices in Hillsboro and Beaverton, Oregon. She practices integrative primary care medicine with a special focus on pediatrics and women's health. Dr. Burke believes in in looking for the root cause of illness and honoring the body's innate ability to heal. Find out more about Dr. Burke at: willownaturalhealth.com

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