A few of you know that a part of my current health journey has been finding out that I am compound heterozygous for the MTHFR mutations, C677T and A1298C, both of which can result in impaired methylation (if that all sounds like gibberish to you, read on for definitions!). I’ve been holding back writing articles on this topic mostly because it is quite difficult to boil down for the purpose of educational blog posts, but I think it is important to write about considering how prevalent optimizing methylation is for those of us with chronic health issues and autoimmunity. This is why the series is broken up into three parts, which will be posted over the next few months.
Last year when I lived in Seattle, I had the fortune to attend a couple of lectures as well as a weekend seminar on methylation by Dr. Ben Lynch, who is one of the leading experts in the field. The information he shared helped me understand why I had been misguided in developing a personalized supplement protocol to help my methylation issues, and why these supplements had made me worse and created new symptoms I had never suffered from before. I had made the mistake of treating myself only based on genetics, without taking into consideration how methylation was actually happening in my body and without considering what effect my dietary and lifestyle modifications were having on methylation.
In the next few months, I’ll be posting a series of articles with the basics that I have learned of methylation. I have had many requests to share what I have been learning, and honestly, I haven’t had enough understanding of this topic to write these articles until now. I hope some of you are able to find some clarity in my explanations, and possibly figure out some of the pieces of your puzzle and learn about how best to guide treatment—hopefully with the help of a skilled practitioner!
Part 1 – Methylation and Folate
What is Methylation?–Simply put, methylation is a biochemical process that occurs in every cell in our bodies countless times throughout the day. For the chemistry nerds—it is the addition of a methyl group (a single carbon atom bonded to three hydrogen atoms) to a compound. Its proper functioning is absolutely essential for optimal health—just check out the list below:
Functions of Methylation:
- Gene regulation and expression
- Neurotransmitter production (which affect everything from mood to digestion and sleep)
- Neurotransmitter metabolism
- Hormone processing (especially Estrogen)
- Building immune cells (T and NK cells)
- DNA and histone synthesis
- Producing energy
- Producing myelin (protective coating on nerves)
- Building and maintaining cell membranes
Because it is so essential to health, when methylation is impaired it can affect almost any organ or system of the body. Some of you in the autoimmune and chronic illness communities are probably familiar with the MTHFR mutation, or other genetic mutations that can impact methylation (more about that in the next part of this series!).
Here are some ways methylation can be disrupted:
- Lack of nutrients (folate, B12)
- Lack of cofactors (zinc, b2, magnesium, cysteine, b6)
- Certain medications (antacids, methotrexate, metformin, nitrous oxide)
- Nutrients that deplete methyl groups (niacin)
- Environmental toxicity (heavy metals and other chemicals)
- Excessive cofactors in the diet
- Excessive stress, anxiety, and sleep disturbances
- Genetic mutations (like the MTHFR genes we will we talking more about)
Thus, in order for a healthy individual without any genetic predisposition otherwise to have proper functioning methylation, they need to have the right amount of nutrients and cofactors to drive the process as well as not be exposed to an excess of medications, toxins, or stressors that can affect the process. Given how toxic and stressful our modern lives are, it is safe to assume a lot of people struggle with methylation. This doesn’t mean we all need to supplement—please stay tuned for the final article which will have some great recommendations.
Folate, Folic Acid, and B12
The two foundational nutrients needed for proper methylation are folate and B12. The lack of folate and excess of folic acid in our modern diet is a big factor affecting the prevalence of methylation issues today. It is very important to know the difference between folate and folic acid—they are not the same thing!
Folate is a general term describing over 150 different forms of folate, a water-soluble B-vitamin that generally comes from food (but it can include synthetic folic acid). It is found mostly in uncooked leafy green vegetables.
Folic acid is completely synthetic and did not exist before it was created in a lab. Biochemically, it does not metabolize the same way as the natural folates derived from food, and actually makes it more difficult for us to absorb natural folates.
Folic acid is found in all manner of processed foods—cereals, breads, pasta, and tons of multi-vitamins and supplements. Recently, research has shown that a high intake of folic acid is problematic—some studies link it to increased rates of cancer, cognitive decline, anemia, and heart disease. Considering the prevalence of this synthetic nutrient in our food supply, this is certainly troubling!
Since folate is an incredibly important nutrient to proper methylation, we need to ensure that we are getting the right kind of folate—that which is found in real food! Raw leafy greens are an excellent source of folate, and supporting methylation is a reason why you should include them in your diet every day.
Vitamin B12 is also important to the methylation process—without it our bodies cannot use folate properly. Many of us, especially those eating on the Autoimmune Protocol eat plenty of B12, which can be found in all muscle meats, organ meats, fish, and shellfish. Those that have impaired digestive function may need to be tested to find out if they are absorbing, as a properly acidic environment in the stomach is needed to absorb B12 properly (this podcast is an excellent resource for anyone looking more into testing and supplementing with B12)
Fortunately, the Autoimmune Protocol naturally sets us up for supporting methylation, because it avoids synthetic folic acid (check your supplements to make double sure!), provides a good source of natural folate from food (make sure to eat some raw greens every day!), and provides plenty of sources of vitamin B12.
In Part II of this series, I will talk about some of the common gene mutations affecting the methylation cycle (like that pesky MTHFR). Stay tuned!