Perhaps one of the most critical processes that underpins our health and wellbeing is methylation. This relatively simple chemical process, occurs billions of times every second, and is important for the proper functioning of virtually all body systems. It's a process that is called upon a lot when we are under stress, so can potentially become depleted. The research into methylation and related genetic mutations that may predispose people to an array of symptoms and chronic disease, has exploded in the last 10 years.
A good understanding of methylation is just as important for health practitioners, who want to provide a personalised plan for their clients, as it is for each one of us, enabling us to take charge of our own health and wellbeing. Knowing how to support this process with diet and lifestyle is key to achieving optimum health and hopefully preventing disease.
WHAT IS METHYLATION?
Methylation is a biochemical process which involves the addition of a ‘methyl group’ to other molecules and is dependent on the availability of a number of key nutrients, especially folate in its active form – methylfolate, B12, and B6.
FUNCTIONS OF METHYLATION
Regulation of mood and sleep through production of neurotransmitters e.g. dopamine, serotonin, adrenaline and melatonin
Nutrient deficiencies - As well as methylfolate and B12, other nutrients such as zinc, magnesium, choline, B6 and B2 are also needed for proper methylation, thus deficiencies in any of these can reduce our ability to 'methylate'. For example, if you are vegetarian, your intake of B12, B6, zinc and choline may be low, while carnivores may not have enough folate or magnesium, especially if they’re not eating enough green leafy vegetables.
Poor digestion - If you are suffering with digestive complaints such as IBS or use acid blocking medication for your heartburn, your absorption of those nutrients may be significantly reduced.
Stressis a major ‘drain’ on methylation – both psychological and physiological stress (e.g. frequent infections, blood sugar imbalances, and excessive exercise), because they all rely on various hormones and neurotransmitters that are driven by methylation.
High sugar diet and high exposure to environmental toxins (non-organic cosmetics, heavy metals, plastics, tobacco smoking etc).
Genetic mutations - some of us are predisposed to methylate less well. Amongst many genes that we know of, the MTHFR gene (methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase) has been very well studied and linked to all of those conditions we discussed. This gene produces an enzyme responsible for methylfolate synthesis. Certain, relatively common ‘mutations’ in this gene can reduce our ability to produce methylfolate by up to 70%.[ix] That’s why it’s important to use methylfolate, rather than folic acid, as it is 3 times more easily absorbed and used by the body, and bypasses the MTHFR enzyme.
HEALTH PROBLEMS ASSOCIATED WITH POOR METHYLATION
Hormonal imbalances: PMS, endometriosis, PCOS, irregular or heavy periods
Infertility (both male and female) and pregnancy-related complications e.g. pre-eclampsia
Depression, anxiety, OCD and psychiatric conditions
General mood fluctuations, tendency to perfectionism, overthinking, anxious and distorted thought
Dementia, Alzheimer’s disease
Chronic fatigue, ME, fibromyalgia
Reduce stress through gentle exercise and relaxation. Lifestyle interventions such as yoga, meditation[x][xi] and Tai Chi[xii] have all been associated with positive effects on methylation
Work on improving your sleep, with calming herbs and nutrients (e.g. lemon balm and magnesium) and relaxation techniques (consider the HeadSpace app)
Reduce the exposure to common environmental chemicals by following an organic diet and use natural-organic beauty products
Reduce exposure to oestrogen-like chemicals (xenooestrogens) by reducing the use of plastic from plastic packaging and food containers and mainstream cosmetics
Limit intake of rice products, especially from non-organic sources (rice, rice milk, rice cakes, flour, foods labelled as ‘gluten-free’ etc.)[xiii] as well as tap water,[xiv]due to high arsenic content
Consider using good quality water and air filters at home
Include plenty of green leafy vegetables (kale, spinach, chard, and broccoli), sea food, good quality meat and offal, nuts and seeds, egg yolks (lightly cooked), pulses
Ensure healthy bacterial balance in the gut to improve absorption of nutrients[xv],[xvi],[xvii]
Limit pro-inflammatory and allergenic foods, especially gluten containing grains, dairy, soya and corn
Limit all sources of sugars and refined carbohydrates to reduce blood glucose spikes, which can be a drain on methylation
Avoid foods that are depleted in nutrients due to over processing, such as packaged and canned foods
Avoid stimulants such as alcohol and caffeine-containing drinks which can deplete B vitamins and increase stress hormones
Include plenty of beneficial plant chemical found in green tea, turmeric, cruciferous vegetables (e.g. cauliflower, Brussel sprouts), small amounts of organic red wine, allium vegetables (e.g. garlic, onions), tomatoes, apples and citrus.[xviii] These have been shown to have a balancing effect on methylation and can protect our DNA
A good and strong multivitamin containing methylfolate and methylcobalamin can provide a great baseline for overall methylation support, while individual nutrients in a liquid form may be particularly useful if you require a specific dose, struggle with digestive issues or find it difficult to swallow capsules
Methylation works in close relation with other processes and systems in the body and can be affected by environmental and psychosocial factors. That’s why a truly holistic way of supporting methylation is to work on all of those factors simultaneously; by improving and cleaning up our diet, reducing our overall toxic load, improving sleep and reducing stress, while supplementing with specific and most bioactive nutrients, according to our individual needs. This may sound far-fetched or unachievable, but remember, this is the end goal, and even if you do it in small steps, starting with one area at a time, your body will thank you for it.
[iv] Neven KY et al. Repetitive element hypermethylation in multiple sclerosis patients. BMC Genet. 2016;17(1):84
[v] Gandolfo G et al. Association of the COMT synonymous polymorphism Leu136Leu and missense variant Vak158Met with mood disorders. J Affect Disord. 2015; 177:108-113.
[vi] Shaik Mohammad N et al. Clinical utility of folate pathway genetic polymorphisms in the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders. Psychiatr Genet. 2016;26(6):281-286.
[vii] Liu A et al. Analysis of the MTHFR C677T variant with migraine phenotypes. . BMC Research Notes 2010;3:213.
[viii] Wernimont SM et al. Polymorphisms in serine hydroxymethyltransferase 1 and methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase interact to increase cardiovascular disease risk in humans. J Nutr.2011;141(2):255-60.
[ix] Frosst P et al. A candidate genetic risk factor for vascular disease: a common mutation in methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase. Nat Genet. 1995;10:111-13.
[x] Rima D, et al. Oxidative Stress Induced Damage to Paternal Genome and Impact of Meditation and Yoga - Can it Reduce Incidence of Childhood Cancer? Asian Pac J Cancer Prev. 2016;9;17(9):4517-4525.
[xi] Harkess KN et al. Preliminary indications of the effect of a brief yoga intervention on markers of inflammation and DNA methylation in chronically stressed women. Translational Psychiatry. 2016;6(11):e965.
[xii] Ren H. et al. Epigenetic Changes in Response to Tai Chi Practice: A Pilot Investigation of DNA Methylation Marks. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2012:Article ID 841810: 9 pages.
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