Methylation: What It Is, Why You Should Care About It + What To Do If It Isn’t Working
You are alive because of brilliant biochemistry. In my telehealth functional medicine clinic I spend every day looking at people’s health cases and lab work and seeing how true this statement really is.
As we go through our daily lives barely giving it a second thought, every system inside your body is working diligently alongside each other to help you live, breathe, and perform all of your daily functions as optimally as possible.
There’s no greater example of this than methylation. This process is so vital to how we function, yet most of us probably haven’t even heard of it. So let’s take a look at why we need to put weight on this important process, what happens when it’s not working properly, and how to support methylation even if things are going awry.
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What is methylation?
Methylation is a biochemical process that your body relies on to keep you healthy and thriving. This process happens close to 1 billion times every second and controls your ability to detox and in turn, lower inflammation, produce neurotransmitters, and protect your DNA. Every cell of your body depends on methylation, so it’s easy to see why if methylation is not functioning optimally, you’re bound to have a few health problems.
What happens with poor methylation?
In fact, poor methylation has been linked to:
- Heart disease (1)
- Hormone imbalances
- Depression (2)
- Autoimmune conditions (3)
- Chronic inflammation
There are many reasons why methylation could be hindered, one being the MTHFR gene mutation. The responsibility of the MTHFR enzyme is to convert folic acid into folate which is the fuel for methylation. In fact, it is estimated (4) that those with MTHFR gene mutations make 70% less methyl-folate than someone without the mutation.
There are two main MTHFR mutations – A1298C and C677T. Mutations of A1298C are linked to mood disorders since it plays a vital role in neurotransmitter function. When C677T is altered it can lead to high levels of inflammatory homocysteine which is linked with heart disease and autoimmune conditions.
Mutations in the MTR and MTRR genes can also contribute to methylation problems. These genes are both needed to produce B12 which is a methyl donor. Those with this mutation use B12 quicker than their body can produce it. Higher B12 intake is necessary, often with supplementation, to make sure you are getting the amount your body needs.
Close to 40% of the world’s population has an MTHFR genetic mutation but most don’t even know it. (5) Genetic testing is important to determine if you have any of these mutations that are hindering the methylation process. This is a vital step in taking action on your health in order to reduce your risk for preventable chronic diseases that are triggered by various environmental factors. Everything from stress, diet, microbiome dysfunctions, and our exposure to toxins can do a number on our health. And without proper methylation we are left defenseless to combat this onslaught of health destruction.
How to test your methylation
Some of the tests I run to look at methylation are:
- DNA Methylation Pathway Profile
This test looks at 30 different methylation SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) to determine what your specific genetic weaknesses and imbalances are since it looks at all DNA mutations that play a role in methylation.
If methylation isn’t functioning properly, homocysteine will usually be high as this amino acid is recycled down by methylation.
- Microbiome labs
Gut problems like candida overgrowth and bacterial imbalances can further perpetuate methylation problems.
- Hair Metal Testing
This looks at lithium levels which plays a role in B12 transport.
How to support methylation
Even if you have a genetic mutation, that doesn’t mean you are doomed to suffer the health consequences. Thankfully, there are many natural ways to support methylation and detox pathways throughout your body.
- Incorporate superfood medicines
Green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, and okra, along with grass-fed organ meats are loaded with B vitamins which are the required fuel for methylation.
- Eat more sulfur-rich foods
Foods high in sulfur like cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, onions, garlic, and mushrooms also help to support methylation.
- Support detoxification
Certain herbs and spices have powerful detoxification properties including cilantro, parsley, turmeric, and dandelion root. These are extremely easy to add into recipes and can help you detox from heavy metals and other chemicals. Milk thistle is also a great choice as it helps support your body’s largest detoxification organ - your liver.
- Switch to clean products
The more toxins you are exposed to on a daily basis can take a toll on your detoxification pathways. Lessen the load on your methylation process by switching your cleaning, beauty, and everyday products over to clean, non-toxic versions as much as possible.
If you needed another reason to manage your stress levels, did you know that stress can actually change the methylation of your DNA and alter the activity of certain genes? (6) Try managing stress by incorporating a daily ritual of mindfulness, meditation, or breathwork to help you stay calm throughout your day.
While these methylation tips are definitely helpful, most people with genetic mutations still need some extra support with supplements.
Since B vitamins act as fuel for your methylation pathways, they are often needed to wake them up and give them that much-needed boost. However, not all supplements are created equally. In fact, folic acid in particular can be toxic for anyone with an MTHFR mutation. Instead, natural folate and activated forms of B vitamins are your best bet.
As someone with an MTHFR gene mutation myself, I saw the need for this next-level supplement but I wasn’t finding one on the market. That’s why I personally curated The Methylator’s comprehensive formula with the highest quality B vitamins including folate (5-Methyltetrahydrofolate), B6 (Pyridoxal 5′-phosphate), B12 (methylcobalamin), B2 (Riboflavin 5′ phosphate), and anhydrous betaine (trimethylglycine). Together these five nutrients work synergistically to support methylation and restore you to a state of thriving health.
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- Wierzbicki, Anthony S. “Homocysteine and cardiovascular disease: a review of the evidence.” Diabetes & vascular disease research vol. 4,2 (2007): 143-50. doi:10.3132/dvdr.2007.033
- Simon Gilbody, Sarah Lewis, Tracy Lightfoot, Methylenetetrahydrofolate Reductase (MTHFR) Genetic Polymorphisms and Psychiatric Disorders: A HuGE Review, American Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 165, Issue 1, 1 January 2007, Pages 1–13, https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/kwj347
- Richardson, Bruce. “DNA methylation and autoimmune disease.” Clinical immunology (Orlando, Fla.) vol. 109,1 (2003): 72-9. doi:10.1016/s1521-6616(03)00206-7
- Sibani, S et al. “Characterization of six novel mutations in the methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) gene in patients with homocystinuria.” Human mutation vol. 15,3 (2000): 280-7. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1098-1004(200003)15:3<280::AID-HUMU9>3.0.CO;2-I
- Traci Stein Ph.D., MPH A Genetic Mutation That Can Affect Mental & Physical Health Psychology 2014. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-integrationist/201409/genetic-mutation-can-affect-mental-physical-health
- Unternaehrer, E., Luers, P., Mill, J. et al. Dynamic changes in DNA methylation of stress-associated genes (OXTR, BDNF ) after acute psychosocial stress. Transl Psychiatry 2, e150 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/tp.2012.77
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, DNM, IFMCP, DC is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.
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