If a patient is struggling with allergies, digestive issues, psychological problems, or a weakened immune system, the root of the condition may be methylation. It runs much deeper than anyone realizes—deeper than any individual organ or singular symptom. The problems with methylation may be brought on by lifestyle or it may be within a person’s genetic code, or DNA. People often associate DNA and genetics with their appearance: hair color, eye color, height, etc. But our genetic code also determines every aspect of how our body runs, from our organs to all of our chemical processes. Human DNA is made up of around 3 billion rungs that influence our health, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that a few of those rungs may be off-kilter.
This is where patients see the benefit of functional medicine in helping to identify health problems. While Western medicine will treat symptoms alone and focus on specific areas of the body, functional medicine seeks to find the root of health problems and treat them by looking at the body as a whole. When looking for the root of the problem, the cause may be from defective methylation, which is directly affected by our genes, and can in turn aid or hinder those same genes.
For more information on the philosophy of functional medicine, click here.
What is Methylation?
Methylation is a biochemical process that acts as the body’s way of responding to stress. It happens in every cell organ of the body, billions of times a second, making it a core aspect of cellular health. The chemical process of methylation promotes the body’s immunity and maintains DNA. It also balances mood, controls inflammation, and fosters energy production.
Methylation can be compared to a tune up that every cell in our body goes through. It contributes to so many different aspects of cellular health, from silencing cancer genes to strengthening neurotransmitters. Many things we do throughout the day can negatively or positively affect our body’s methylation process, and it can be a seen as a direct
The Methylation Cycle
The methylation cycle begins with the stuff we take into our body, namely, food. The body pulls nutrients from food, like Vitamin B12 and Folate. Vitamin B12 (Methycobalamin) and Folate (Methylfolate) attach to a homocysteine to create S-Adenosyl methionine (SAM). SAM attracts a methyl group, which it then carries to amino acids and DNA. These methyl groups silence certain unhealthy genes in DNA and contribute to a number of other important processes in the body that detox, fight disease, and keep the body healthy. They also fuel neurotransmitters that are responsible for sending messages throughout the body. Once the methyl group detaches from the SAM, the molecule becomes homocysteine again, which is recycled to pull nutrients again to make more SAM. The cycle then continues.
This is what occurs in methylation, and it occurs in every cell of the body more than a billion times every second. So when certain aspects of the body or our genetic code lower the function of methylation, it quite literally affects everything in the body. People with low functioning methylation may experience a whole multitude of symptoms that have been a consistent problem throughout their lives. Sometimes this is due to lifestyle habits that harm methylation, but often it’s due to a mutation in the MTHFR gene.
Have Questions? We're here to help.
Role of MTHFR in Methylation
MTHFR, or methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase, is formed from folate and methenyl. The MTHFR gene kick starts the chemical process of methylation by converting the amino acid homocysteine into methionine. In turn, methionine converts into SAM in the liver which, as discussed earlier, plays a crucial role in the process of the methylation.
When the MTHFR gene is mutated, its ability to process chemicals is weakened and it negatively affects methylation. Therefore every product of the MTHFR gene created is defective, which in turn makes all the processes associated with it defective. The chemical process of methylation, including its ability to detox the body, has a lower function causing toxins to build up over time. As these toxins build, they can cause serious health issues. This is why it’s so important to identify genetic issues in order to take on an appropriate treatment plan to make up for any deficiencies.
For more information on the MTHFR gene and its mutation, click here.
Other Factors that Affect Methylation
Apart from genetics, many other factors negatively or positively affect methylation. Age is one of them—as people get older, their methylation process (along with many other parts of the body) becomes weaker. Older patients should make it a priority to get tested for any discrepancies in their methylation if they find themselves struggling with chronic fatigue or arthritis. Another factor that can affect methylation is unhealthy lifestyle choices, like smoking, drinking, and caffeine addiction. Maternal nutrition during conception has also been found to have an affect on the child’s methylation. In a study, it was found that variations in methyl-donor nutrients influenced increasing and decreasing methylation for postnatal infants. In this instance, the dietary and lifestyle choices one person makes for their methylation will affect the methylation of another person, and how that child’s genetics are expressed.
Conditions Caused by Low Methylation Function
When methylation is hindered or when a mutated gene is present, it can increase the chance of chronic conditions like cancer, autism, diabetes, allergies, digestive problems, cardiovascular disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, miscarriages, and more.
When methylation function is low, the body’s immunity is also lowered since the process that supports it is hindered. As a result, patients with low methylation function caused by a mutation in the MTHFR gene may have trouble fighting off infections and illnesses. Not only can patients become ill more often, but these illnesses can take a toll on the body’s health over time.
Methylation is also responsible for creating myelin for the brain and nervous system, so along with physiological symptoms, patients with low functioning methylation can also display psychological symptoms. Psychological effects include everything from depression to anxiety to learning disabilities. Because the chemicals that keep the brain healthy aren’t being produced at the same level as people with healthy methylation function, people may struggle with autistic behavior or any number of psychological and behavioral conditions.
Testing for Methylation Deficiency
Diagnostic lab tests are available to help reveal problem areas in the detox pathways and SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms). SNPs are changes in the DNA code that can negatively affect methylation. The SNP test finds some of these discrepancies in the code, including the MTHFR mutation. Patients are asked to fast overnight before taking the test. The test requires dried blood spot (DBS) specimens on a protein saver card.
Locating SNPs can help determine what kind of treatment or supplements are required in order to bring methylation back into balance. Although MTHFR mutation is one of the most prominent SNPs doctors look for, there are many others. For example, the COMT (catechol-O-methyltransferase) gene affects the liver, red blood cells, and kidneys. The BHMT gene helps catalyze the exchange of a methyl group from betaine to homocysteine. The SNP test can identify these and many other genetic deficiencies.
Another way of testing for a methylation deficiency is by doing a complete blood count. Doctors will look for anemia or large red blood cells with a mean corpuscular volume (MCV) greater than 95, which are both signs of lower methylation function.
A homocysteine test of urine or blood can help identify vitamin B12 and folate deficiencies. A normal homocysteine level is less than 13, and a healthy level is likely between 5 and 7. All these tests can be obtained by visiting a doctor and requesting labs.
Treatments to Improve Methylation
If the MTHFR gene is mutated or if methylation function is low, than it’s easier for toxins to build up in the body. The best way to address to defect is to start by minimizing the amount of toxins the body takes in. Patients can do this is by following the GAPS diet. The GAPS diet seals the gut and helps maintain the balance of bacteria throughout the digestive tract. When the bacteria in the body are healthy, they are able to process food and eliminate toxins. Another important thing to consider when treating methylation through diet is to eat plenty of leafy greens. Dark, leafy plants like kale, spinach, collard greens, and beet greens are all rich in folates.
For more information on the GAPS diet, click here.
Another way to address low methylation function is to take supplements. Here are a few supplements available on the market to support methylation:
• Folate: This nutrient is essential to the methylation process as it creates SAM, the molecule that carries methyl groups to amino acids. The proper dosage depends on the person and can be anywhere from 200 mcg to 1 mg. It’s recommended to start with a small amount and only increase if a change isn’t noticed.
• Vitamin B12: Another essential nutrient in methylation, Vitamin B12, also helps create SAM. Oral supplements are not absorbed well into the body, and most people opt for Vitamin B12 shots instead. Again, dosages depend on the person, but after 8 to 10 injections in the first few months, many go down to once a month thereafter.
It is important to know that supplements should be taken under a doctor’s supervision. Each person requires different doses of varying supplements depending on what genetic mutation they are trying to counteract. Clinical tests show that supplements can make a difference in methylation and symptoms affected by low methylation.
Apart from diet and supplements, simple lifestyle changes can help improve methylation in the body as well. For example, smoking cigarettes with carbon monoxide inhibits vitamin B6 in the chemical processes of methylation, so quitting will have an immediate positive effect. Certain drugs can also affect vitamin B6, including birth control pills, HCTZ for high blood pressure, methotrexate used for cancer, arthritis and autoimmune diseases, and Dilantin which is taken for seizures. Alcohol and caffeine are known to drain vitamin B levels, so limiting your intake of coffee and trips to the bar can improve methylation.
When it comes to exercise, the healthiest activity recommended for improving methylation is moderate level activity. A patient shouldn’t overly strain their system with marathon running, nor should they exercise at so low a level that they don’t sweat. Whatever exercise they do should be enough to make their blood vessels expand and contract, thereby improving circulation.
Dr. Maggie has made it her mission to not just give her patients relief from their ailments but to strengthen the root of the immune system and supplement some of the issues in genetics so that patients can better combat any future health challenge. In her practice she advocates making all parts of the patient well, because rarely are ailments isolated within the body. To learn more about Dr Maggie’s medical philosophy and how it can improve overall health, click here to schedule an appointment.