What is Methylation & Why You Should Care
Updated: Jul 19
The topic of methylation is getting its fair share of attention lately, and rightly so. It's actually become something I've done a personal deep dive into myself as a coach, because I feel it's not something many coaches discuss or look into when working with their clients. Yet it has a massive impact.
WHAT IS METHYLATION?
Methylation is a simple biochemical process involved in a wide range of bodily functions – it is the transfer of four atoms - one carbon atom and three hydrogen atoms (CH3) – from one substance to another.
When optimal methylation occurs, it has a significant positive impact on many biochemical reactions in the body that regulate the activity of the cardiovascular, neurological, reproductive, and detoxification systems, including those relating to DNA production, neurotransmitter production, estrogen metabolism, histamine metabolism, detoxification, fat metabolism, eye health, liver health, and cellular energy.
But when it is out of balance it can contribute to many different health problems.
Methylation of DNA also plays a crucial part in epigenetics, determining which genes are turned on or off. For most genes, less methylation = ON; more methylation = OFF. These methylation patterns can also be influenced by diet and environmental factors.
Given the many crucial functions of methylation, it’s not surprising that impaired methylation can lead to a wide range of conditions like depression, anxiety, histamine intolerance, increased risk of cancer, hormone imbalance, poor detox capacity, infertility, birth defects, fatigue, and low energy.
While hypomethylation is associated with lots of problems, hypermethylation may be equally problematic. The goal should really be methylation balance.
WHY IS METHYLATION IMPORTANT?
The body is a very complex organism. Much like any piece of machinery, one part is connected to, and interdependent upon another. There are various "gears" and "switches" that need to be all functioning properly in order for you to function optimally. Think of methylation (and the opposite action, demethylation) as the mechanism that allows the gears to turn, and turns biological switches on and off for a variety of systems in the body.
HOW DOES METHYLATION HAPPEN?
In technical terms three hydrogen atoms ( CH3 ) is provided to the body through a universal methyl donor known as SAMe (S-adenosylmethionine). SAMe readily gives away its methyl group to other substances in the body, which enables your body's cardiovascular, neurological, reproductive, and detoxification systems to perform their functions.
Unfortunately, the system that produces SAMe is reliant on one switch being turned on by critical B vitamins, such as 5-MTHF (also known as active folate or methylfolate). Vitamins B2, B6 and B12 are needed for the activity of particular enzymes used by this cycle as well . Deficiency in one or more of these B vitamins can lead to impairment in the way the methylation cycle works.
Where things get bumpy is that unfortunately, approximately 60% of people in the United States have a genetic mutation that makes it challenging for their bodies to create enough 5-MTHF. And 2/5ths of the country has one or more deficiencies in B2, B6, and B12. These deficiencies can lead to low or impaired methylation. What this means is that you do not create enough SAMe, and so a number of important molecules cannot be efficiently produced, including: Glutathione, Coenzyme Q10, Melatonin, Serotonin, Nitric Oxide, Norepinephrine, Epinephrine, L-Carnitine, Cysteine, and Taurine.
Aside from B Vitamins, other nutrients such as methionine, cysteine, taurine, DHA, zinc, magnesium, potassium, riboflavin, niacin, pyridoxine, betaine, choline, and sulfur also play a role.
HOW WOULD YOU KNOW IF YOU NEED METHYLATION SUPPORT?
Bloodwork. Pure and simple.
If you have elevated homocysteine or liver enzymes and/or low B12 and red cell folate, it's a strong indicator you need some methylation support. Some practitioners advise a genetic test to look at specific enzymes that are affected by your genetic makeup, including the enzyme MTHFR (methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase), which is the most important enzyme involved in creating 5-MTHF.
Personally, I feel you can determine it using basic bloodwork.
Some of the signs and symptoms you may experience that could indicate methylation issues could be ongoing fatigue, family history of heart disease or anxiety and depression, poor mood, difficulty concentrating, chronic constipation, and issues with inflammation.
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO ENSURE YOU HAVE HEALTHY METHYLATION?
The first thing I always like to look at is gut health because bacteria play a role in the methylation cycle. Many Bifidobacteria are folate producers while other bacterial genera, like Lactobacilli, are folate consumers. Gut dysbiosis or imbalance can therefore lead to hypo- or hypermethylation, depending on which bacteria are dominant. Restoring a healthy gut microbiota can help bring methylation back into balance.
You can also ensure that you have adequate intake of the necessary vitamins that support healthy methylation, through your diet, and through supplementation if necessary**. There are seven specific nutrients that can help the methylation cycle achieve optimal performance, even you found out you had the genetic mutation that slows down the methylation cycle.
· 5-MTHF (active folate)
· Methylcobalamin (active vitamin B12)
· Pyridoxal 5’-Phosphate (active vitamin B6)
· Riboflavin 5’-Phosphate (active vitamin B2)
· Betaine (also known as trimethylglycine)
· Vitamin D
Some notes regarding supplements- Two steps are required for the body to absorb vitamin B12 from a supplement or food. As far as food, hydrochloric acid in the stomach separates vitamin B12 from the protein to which vitamin B12 is attached in food. After this, vitamin B12 combines with a protein made by the stomach called intrinsic factor and is absorbed by the body. Some people have pernicious anemia, a condition in which they cannot make intrinsic factor. As a result, they have trouble absorbing vitamin B12 from all foods and dietary supplements. If you have low stomach acid this can also impact absorption.
Taking ACTIVATED B vitamins can help. You'd also want to take B vitamins on an EMPTY STOMACH as they are water-soluble. Additionallym taking B Vitamins with magnesium can help enhance absorption since they work in tandem.
In severe instances of malabsorption, pernicious anemia, or other issues with the gut (IBD, IBS, etc) an injection might be more beneficial. This allows you to absorb the B vitamins through the muscle and bypass the gut. Gastrointestinal issues, infection, long term food allergies or other issues with gut health, may just make it hard for you to absorb what you need from food or supplements.
**Supplementation should be seen as an acute therapeutic phase to get yourself back into a range that can then be maintained with diet and lifestyle. I like to retest after 60 days or so to determine if it's been working.
BOTTOM LINE: Methylation is complex, but it does play a crucial role in the body both metabolically and epigenetically. It often gets overlooked, which can severely impact how well your body functions.