What is Methylation and Why Should You Care?

What is Methylation and Why Should You Care?

“Methylation” is a word you probably have not heard of before. To many of my clients who have had their genes tested, this term should ring a bell… The first time I heard it, I had no clue what methylation meant. While it may sound like a big word, methylation is a biochemical process your body undertakes trillions of times in a single second. What I now know is that methylation is a FUNDAMENTAL process and it is absolutely essential for our body to function optimally and has a profound impact on health and disease.

Sounds pretty important to our wellbeing, right? Keep reading to find out more.

METHYLATION 101

Methylation is a biochemical process and like biochemistry – it’s very complicated and a very intricate process.

In some respects, methylation is actually very simple in the sense that it is absolutely central to our physical, emotional, and mental well-being.

The methylation cycle helps repair and make new DNA, keeps inflammation in check, it replenishes the compounds needed for detoxification, maintain a stable mood, making and processing hormones, clearing histamine and managing gene expression (it makes sure the health genes are ‘turned on’ and the disease genes are ‘switched off’) – so you can only imagine why it is so important!

Methylation is a topic that is probably most well-researched as it relates to cancer, because when researchers change which regions of DNA are “methylated” then they can stop the growth and reproduction of cancer cells.

CONDITIONS ASSOCIATED WITH INSUFFICIENT METHYLATION

If there is a dysfunction it can influence ADD/ADHD, autism, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, addiction, Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety, cancer, chronic fatigue, migraines, dementia, cognitive decline, allergies, fertility issues, early miscarriage, birth defects e.g. spina bifida, diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular health, diabetes, thyroid disease, and sleep disturbances (insomnia). 

This list looks frighteningly endless… (to name a few, OK, to name many, but there are more).

Hyper and hypo-methylation:

Methylation needs to be BALANCED. Both hypo-methylation (not enough methylation taking place) and hyper-methylation (excessive methylation) can be detrimental to your health.

WHAT AFFECTS METHYLATION?

Balanced methylation depends on many factors all working in sequence. The critical ones being:

  • Poor nutrient intake. Individuals who do not consume enough methylating nutrients – like Vitamin B12, folate, vitamin B6, choline, and the amino acids methionine and betaine. Different enzymes is in involved in the methylation pathway and these enzymes are activated by vitamins or minerals so the above-mentioned methylating nutrient Co-factors are important for driving enzyme reactions involved in methylation.
  • Vegetarian and vegan diets often avoid egg yolks, meat, liver, fish and these are primary sources of Vitamin B12, and so might lead to depletion of this vital nutrient required to maintain a healthy methylation status.
  • Alcohol. People who often consume more than one alcoholic drink a day (240 ml red wine per day or 80 ml spirits per day) can significantly decrease blood folate levels needed for methylation.
  • Smoking can decrease your ability to achieve optimal methylation because carbon monoxide from cigarettes can inactivate vitamin B6.
  • Certain medications like acid blockers, oral contraceptives, hydrochlorothiazide (HCTZ) for high blood pressure, and phenytoin (used for seizures/epilepsy), anti-depressants, metformin (Type 2 Diabetics, Insulin resistance) can all influence your levels of B vitamins. Methotrexate (used for cancer, arthritis and certain autoimmune diseases) is a folate-blocker, which can significantly alter your body’s methylation ability.
  • Gut-health. In the gut, many of the ‘good’ bacteria (bifidobacteria) produce folate, when there is an imbalance between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria (called dysbiosis or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth ) then less folate is produced which is required for methylation.
  • Stress. When you’re under stress, your body calls upon its store of B vitamins to cope with this added pressure and can quickly deplete stores.
  • Caffeine-containing drinks have a mildly diuretic effect on your body. Because B vitamins are water soluble and are flushed out of the body through excretion, heavy caffeine users may a higher rate of nutrients losses through diuresis and impact methylation.
  • Refined Sugars and Starches. A diet rich in refined sugars and starches tends to deplete your body of vitamins in general but hits the B-complex vitamins especially hard that’s required to maintain a healthy methylation status. Foods high in white sugar and bleached flours demand additional amounts of B vitamins to convert them into energy.
  • Genetics can play a huge role in your ability to properly methylate, as approximately 40% of people have a genetic variation in folate metabolism (MTHFR gene), while other individuals are genetically predisposed to higher homocysteine levels. Both of these genetic variations can result in improper methylation in the body and increase the risk for many diseases including autism, depression, fertility issues and so much more.

Others include: inflammation, oxidative stress, environmental toxins (pollution, pesticides, mercury, lead, benzene, bisphenol A), hormones, excess histamine (caused by allergies), ageing, GIT surgery and resection of certain parts of the digestive tract (e.g. gastric bypass), sleep deprivation.

HOW CAN YOU KNOW IF THE METHYLATION PROCESS IS BALANCED?

There are lab tests that can be used to measure the methylation process – this includes Blood tests as well as DNA testing.

It’s relatively easy for your dietitian to test your methylation status, by assessing a few blood parameters, including:

  • Homocysteine levels – Elevated homocysteine level is associated with ineffective methylation
  • Vitamin B12, Folate, Methylmalonic acid level –  Assesses your vitamin B12 and folate state
  • Complete blood count – Anaemia may be a sign of poor methylation

Genetics Can Affect Methylation, too

One of the most common variations associated with unbalanced methylation is the MTHFR variation. Other genetic variations that also indicate defective methylation and laboratories report on, include MTR, MTRR, CBS and COMT.

By means of DNA testing, one would be able to determine if an individual are genetically inclined to poor methylation and whether additional methylating support would be required.

HOW DO WE ACHIEVE BALANCED METHYLATION?

As mentioned before – methylation balance is what will ensure that all the right disease-fighting genes are turned on while all the bad disease-causing genes are switched off, so the balance is what you must strive for.

How can you optimize the methylation process?

1. Get more methylation nutrients (B vitamins, folate, choline, methionine, betaine) from foods such as:

  • Nuts and seeds
  • Beef, pork, lamb, liver, chicken, fish, eggs
  • Beans and pulses e.g. lentils
  • Bright fruit and vegetables, think beetroot
  • Dark leafy green vegetables, broccoli, spinach, asparagus
  • Whole grains e.g. quinoa

If your dietary intake of these nutrients is low, especially for an extended period of time, then your risk of chronic diseases can skyrocket.

2. Eat your Methylation Adaptogens

The term adaptogen refers to a plant-based compound that promotes ‘balance’ within a biochemical pathway. It’s a little bit like using a thermostat in a one’s home, when temperatures rises above the desired level, the thermostat turns off the heat to bring the temperature down. When the temperatures fall too low, the thermostat signals the heating to kick in and raise the temperature. Adatogens are like thermostats – both gentle and powerfully effective.

Here are the best sources of methylation adaptogens:

  • Cruciferous vegetables e.g. rocket, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, wasabi, radish, kohlrabi
  • Berries, choose a variety of different berries
  • Turmeric (curcumin) is a common ingredient in curry spices and available on its own in supermarkets
  • Shiitake mushrooms
  • Rosemary, fresh or dried

3. Nutritional supplements are available for support

There are supplements available to assist in ensuring effective methylation, such as folate, vitamin B6, vitamin B12 and betaine. Be cautious! Taking high dose supplementation can often cause you to create an imbalance so the best way to achieve optimal methylation is to tackle your diet. Supplemental dosages would need to be based on blood values and/or DNA test results and the nutrients should to be in their ‘active’ form. Discuss these options with your dietitian.

4. Regular exercise 

Regular, moderate-intensity exercise is an effective anti-dote to factors that can deplete methylation or negatively alter methylation activity such as stress, oxidative stress and inflammation. Recommendations (based on research) vary from 30 minutes, 3-5 times per week to 12.5 hours per week. Exercise recommendations however need to be tailored to each individual, for some, just 10 minutes a day is a good starting point.

WHAT CAN PAARL DIETITIANS DO FOR YOU?

If you suspect you methylation cycle are not fully functioning, talk to Paarl Dietitian’s. Blood tests as well as DNA testing can be arranged to help determine if you have methylation issues.

The best way to ensure balanced methylation is to make sure you are eating a balanced, nutrient-rich diet. Paarl Dietitian’s usually encourage food first, but if you are found lacking, you may benefit from taking methylation supporting supplements and/or adaptogens to optimise longterm health outcomes.

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