Does Your Heart Health Predestine Brain Health and Emotional Health?
Sometimes, a cigarette isn’t just a cigarette… and a fatty snack isn’t just emotional eating. Certain genetic variants may leave us with a predisposition toward nicotine and other addictions (like opioids) or a lesser ability to resist those fatty, fattening foods without consequences. And, as it turns out, the connection between these bad habits and our mental health is something that’s been ignored for too long. It’s time to speak up about how our heart affects our minds… and not just our bodies!
Reader, have you ever noticed how much you learn purely through osmosis? If you’re anything like me and my family, you’ve driven past enough billboards, seen enough commercials, and read enough headlines to know our hearts can seem like the most fragile of organs. As a psych blog, you might think I’m talking about how easily our hearts can be broken, or any other similar metaphor with “heart” standing in for something intangible—our emotions, or our intuition. Now, of course I care about these things, deeply. But this week, I want to explain why our hearts—yes, the real, beating, blood-pumping thing in the center of our chests—can have a huge impact on our mental, and yes, emotional, health, as well as our physical (brain) health. And I want to tell you how changing our habits in regard to our heart-health might save us in ways far beyond just preventing a heart attack.
As with the rest of this series, we’re going to hone in today on your DNA—what your genes are doing for you (and to you), and what you can do for them in return, to upregulate or downregulate them to make you healthier and more resilient. Specifically, we’ll be taking a look at genes found within our cardiometabolic system—one of six domains assayed by Genomind in their Mindful DNA genetic test. As we move along, remember: the more you know now, and the more you are willing to use actionable, targeted genomics to change your lifestyle, the healthier you will be as you age… in body, mind and spirit.
The Cardiometabolic System: What’s That… and How Does It Affect My Brain?
At first glance, it may seem as though we’ve collectively reached a saturation point in terms of heart-related public service announcements. Believe me, I know what it’s like to finally try to relax after a busy week, only to be confronted with yet another magazine ad about how important it is to exercise or eat healthy for our heart health. I remember as I was raising my kids, I’d want to yell at these ads, “with what time?!” Admittedly, “heart health” seems like an irrelevant term when we’re in our younger years and seemingly immune to the diseases we imagine only come with old age.
But here’s the rub: Sure, we may be oversaturated with information about why it’s important to keep our heart healthy to increase years lived, or bodily health. But little has been communicated about how keeping our hearts healthy impacts our mental (brain) health outcomes throughout our lifespan.
Did you know, for instance, that people with depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder have higher rates of cardiometabolic disorders (obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and strokes) and worse treatment outcomes? According to the Office of Mental Health, heart disease is the leading cause of death in people with mental illness. These individuals have high rates of diabetes and an increased risk for obesity and concerns related to smoking and nicotine addiction. Now, anyone who has been on a run or has engaged in a heart-pounding activity can tell you about the intimate connection between our hearts and our minds—these correlations between our physical and mental health only serve to prove out that link and show you how systems biology proves yet again how interconnected and future-determining all the various health domains truly are.
Your cardiometabolic system significantly influences your waist circumference, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels—and identifying your personal genome within this system can also help predict your future negative health outcomes, from heart disease to Alzheimer’s. As it turns out, keeping your heart healthy may just keep your mind healthy as well. Let’s take a deeper look into the genes responsible for those outcomes, and what you can do to shift their expression toward a more resilient you:
Cardiometabolic Genes: CRP, CHRNA5/A3, and ACE
CRP: CRP stands for “C Reactive Protein”, which is produced in response to inflammation and tissue damage and is a predictor of cardiovascular disease risk. A high level of CRP has been associated with a doubled risk of a coronary event—and, as you may have guessed, certain variants on this gene leave some of us predisposed for these high levels. Specifically, those with CT and TT genotypes on the CRP gene have a significantly greater risk of elevation than CC carriers. Why is this significant? Simple: If you know your CRP gene is causing you increased levels, you can fight back against your developing heart disease by engaging in lifestyle habits that limit inflammation—and therefore decrease those proteins. For instance, DHA supplements have been found to lead to a greater reduction in CRP (we reviewed this last week with the APOE gene!) As you consider this, remember that prolonged inflammation can affect your heart as well as your brain: individuals may suffer an increased risk for Alzheimer’s because of inflammation!
CHRNA5/A3: Now, of all the genes found within the cardiometabolic domain, I admit this particular gene may be the most intriguing. CHRNA5 and CHRNA3 both encode a receptor that nicotine binds to in order for the body to process its physiological effects. Multiple studies have shown that certain variants on these genes either reduce or increase this receptor’s function. Specifically, the A allele (an allele is a variant or type of gene) has been shown to be associated with an increased risk for nicotine dependence. Individuals that are homozygous (get one A allele from Mom and another one from Dad) for these risk alleles also have a higher chance of relapsing after quitting smoking. But here’s something interesting about this gene: Different variants can also lead individuals to different reactions to treatments for quitting. For instance, those with the risk alleles were more likely to reverse their risk of relapse by using nicotine replacement therapy.
Smoking is a leading cause of preventable mortality. The more you know about how this gene is operating in your body, the more you might think twice before grabbing a casual cigarette… or developing a “casual” habit. Smoking causes genetic mutations that lead to many different types of difficult-to-treat cancers, and smokers are more likely than non-smokers to meet current criteria for mental health conditions, such as mood disorders, anxiety disorders and psychosis, and have more difficulty quitting.
PCSK9: Smoking is one of the leading causes of preventable mortality—and obesity is another. This gene expresses an enzyme that is strongly linked with lipoprotein homeostasis—and certain variants lead to greater metabolism or clearance of cholesterol and LDL particles in the blood (LDL: that’s the bad kind of cholesterol), while other variants lead to decreased clearance levels. If you’re born with a gene that leaves you with a slower LDL metabolism process, it makes sense you’d be at a higher risk for all the heart problems associated with high levels of bad cholesterol. If you know this about your genes, you might choose to watch your diet more carefully—or take supplements known to help the process of decreasing bad cholesterol. Berberine is one example of a natural supplement that works in this way.
Healthy Heart means a Healthy Mind… and that’s the Bottom Line
These are but three of the 11 cardiometabolic genes analyzed by the Mindful DNA Assay. Analysis of its 32 genes in six domains can help improve your present and future health and well-being through recommending specific health-promoting epigenetic modifiers based upon your personal genomics. Each gene contains equally important information about your possible health outcomes—and posits similarly helpful solutions for bumping your “Risk” genes up a level of “Average”, and “Average” genes to “Resilient”. Your health is in your hands, reader! And the sooner you take advantage of this fact, the more time you give yourself to act now to add healthier years to your life.
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