How’s your Methylation?

Methylation is one of the most important biochemical processes that your body has. Every important function depends on it in some way.  It plays a major role in healthy aging, prevention and reversal of chronic diseases, and we now know that nutrition and good lifestyle choices can help optimize it.

What is it? It is a process that adds methyl groups (remember chemistry class?) to drive various chemical reactions including:

  • Protection and repair of your DNA: DNA, your genetic make up, is your master instruction manual. It determines not only how you look physically, and what diseases you are predisposed to, but it is the ultimate control of how your body responds daily to keep you healthy.
  • Neurotransmitter activity of the brain and nervous system: Methylation optimizes the function of neurotransmitters- the brain and nerves’ chemical messengers, such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. When out of balance, all  different kinds of mood and cognitive disorders can result such as depression, anxiety, memory impairment, and even signs of autistic spectrum disorder.
  • Protection of the Myelin, the crucial insulation of the nerves.
  • Production of the compounds needed to make cell membranes: Cell membranes, the outer walls of the cells, need to be strong and optimally functioning, so that cells can receive their needed nutrients and can be protected from harmful substances.
  • Controlling the blood level of the compound homocysteine: When too much homocysteine is present, it can damage blood vessels and brain cells, predisposing a person to heart attacks and strokes.
  • Allowing the body to get rid of toxins and having a strong antioxidant system: This prevents accumulation of damaging substances from all kinds of sources including pollutants, metabolic byproducts of medicines and hormones, poor digestive processes and hidden infections. This helps prevent the body from “rusting” and  helps to control inflammation, and helps to keep hormones balanced and therefore many chronic diseases including dementia, heart disease, and various cancers. It is one of the things that can explain why some are damaged by environmental toxins and some not.
  • Protecting against some birth defects and miscarriages.

So we all need optimal methylation! The process of methylation itself requires Vitamins B6, B12 and Folate to work. A deficiency of these and/or other methylation compounds (choline, lecithin, betaine etc.) can make someone an undermethylator. A genetic “typo” can create sluggish methylation enzymes, also making someone an undermethylator.

Genetically, someone can also be an overmethylator, though this is less common. Regardless, optimal nutritional support and minimizing stresses put on the methylation system (to avoid “burnout”), are key!

So how do you know how your methylation is and what can you do about it?

  • First, look at your own medical history of symptoms or diseases, and that of your family. If there is a tendency towards heart disease, cancer (colon is a big one), mood disorders, neurological issues, chemical sensitivities, allergies, autoimmunity, excessive fatigue, or other chronic imbalances, you may be an out of balance methylator.
  • Look at your bloodwork. Do you have evidence of Vitamin B12, B6, or Folate deficiency?  Is your homocysteine level elevated? Is your Histamine level high or low? Have you had the gene for your MTHFR enzyme (a key methylation enzyme) tested?
  • Do you smoke (smoking tends to deplete Vitamin B6)? Are you in contact with many environmental chemicals? Do you take any medicines that may deplete B vitamins like Metformin or prevent absorption like Acid Blockers? Do you feel like you poorly digest food? Are you a vegetarian? Are you gluten free? If yes, you may not be getting enough B vitamins in your diet.
  • If you and/or your doctor feel like out of balance methylation could be an issue for you, take a good nutritional supplement containing Vitamins B6, B12 and Folate. If you have a genetic predisposition of being an undermethylator especially if there is evidence of undermethylation in your health history and/or labwork, then taking the methylated  or activated forms of these is key. Look for Methylcobolamin (B12) Methyltetrahydrofolate (folate) and Pyridoxal-5′-phosphate (B6). (For over-methylators, these forms would not be taken. A special test for Histamine can be done if there is a concern). There are also other methylation supporting supplements available if extra support is needed.

Earlier, I said that  optimal nutritional support and minimizing stresses put on the methylation system (to avoid “burnout”), are key! Nutritional support comes from a healthy “clean” diet, supplements, and making sure that digestion and absorption of the nutrients from the food you eat is good. Stress to the methylation system can greatly be reduced with a true combination of healthy “clean” diet, exercise, stress reduction activities, getting enough sleep, and minimizing exposure to pollutants.

While genes are not modifiable, per se, if you know your weaknesses you can create a nutritional and lifestyle game plans to overcome them. Knowing your methylation status can give you a great opportunity to be proactive whether its for prevention or for getting to the root causes of many chronic diseases.

Special note: While it has not yet become mainstream practice to test for methylation genetic alterations, there are testing options available, some at general and more at specialized labs. This is something you can talk with your doctor about, or can consult with a Functional Medicine doctor about (you can read more about Functional Medicine at the Institute for Functional Medicine website

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