Methylation is a key, biochemical process that involves a dizzying dance of reactions. A lot of people are looking to investigate their methylation processes, because there’s a number of things that can go wrong in your body if your methylation cycle doesn’t work optimally.
Certain people attempt to address their methylation cycle through the use of nutrient therapies that may help to improve methylation function. These often involve various B-vitamins, minerals, and amino acids.
How Important Is Methylation?
Methylation is also called the “one carbon cycle”. It’s a process going on inside of your cells continuously. Methylation involves the exchange of methyl, which is a “one carbon, 3 hydrogen” molecule. Methyl is actually a very simple molecule, but what methylation does is very important.
Some of the functions that methylation influences:
- Brain function and behavior – by affecting the creation, utilization and eventual disposal of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, GABA, glutamate and adrenaline.
- Heart health & blood vessel integrity – The amino acid homocysteine is made via methylation, and removed via methylation. Too much homocysteine can be highly inflammatory, and can contribute to heart disease. Methylation also affects your body’s production of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is an important blood vessel dilator. Nitric oxide enables smooth flow through critical arteries. Too little nitric oxide, or the wrong form of it can create cardiovascular complications.
- Antioxidant formation – Methylation is connected to a pathway called sulfuration. This pathway forms an important amino acid called cysteine. Cysteine is used to make important antioxidants, namely glutathione, metallothionein and lipoic acid. These antioxidants are the big defenders of your cells, and are able to minimize the harmful effects of toxins and free radicals.
- Immune system function – Certain immune cells are produced in response to methylation. This is particularly true of lymphocyte-derived T-cells and B-cells
- Detoxification – Methylation is a “phase 2” detoxification process. Methylation is very important for transforming a chemical toxin into something the body can get rid of.
- Synthesizing your DNA – In a process known as thymidine synthesis, we synthesize and repair our DNA. This happens as a result of methylation reactions.
MTHFR & Other Methylation Genes
Genes that you’ve inherited from parents can have an influence on your methylation function. But this isn’t the end of the story.
Your inherited genes are like a gigantic instruction manual. Beyond that, they don’t have a function. The gene gets transcribed into an enzyme, and the enzyme functions as a catalyst for a biochemical reaction. So it is true for genes related to methylation.
MTHFR is a gene that can influence methylation in a major way. If someone has a gene mutation in MTHFR, this may impair the ability for the MTHFR enzyme to function optimally. Consequently they may not be able to make the right form of folate, known as 5-methyl tetrahydrofolate. But it is important to understand that not everyone with MTHFR gene mutations (or for that matter any other gene mutation) has dysfunctional methylation. What matters most is your body’s ability to adapt, despite the gene mutation.
It is important to point out that a person can have problems with methylation without gene mutations. For example, certain drugs can impair your body’s ability to form 5-methyl tetrahydrofolate. This can be true of estrogen, methotrexate, and a list of others.
In these cases, methylation function is impaired because of a drug, not because of your genes.
Measuring the Net Effects of Gene Expression & The Use of Customized Nutrition
There are some ways to find out how problematic certain gene mutations are. For example, its possible to measure certain methylation-related metabolites in the blood. If someone has a low level of 5-methyl tetrahydrofolate, and they have an MTHFR gene mutation, it may be true that you’ll need to do some type of nutritional protocol for this.
This is where it can get tricky. The solution that so many people take is: “lets just take this supplement for this gene.” Reductionist approaches like this fail to address the complex nature of biochemistry, and usually don’t end up working out so well.
Instead, what’s needed is a careful analysis of the whole picture. Ultimately you can’t treat a gene, you can only treat a person. From a biochemical perspective, its important to address the whole pathway, not just a single enzyme.
The clever and competent clinician knows this, and is able to make the necessary recommendations based upon the whole body of evidence. The ultimate goal is to help someone get to a better state of health. If methylation is a problem for someone, there is a lot that can be done about it. Customizing nutrient therapies can be accomplished through an intelligent clinical investigative process. This usually involves:
- Identifying the weak points
- Conducting a thorough evaluation of a person’s health history, dietary habits, toxin exposure, genetic information and lab test results
- Choosing a nutritional intervention based upon the data
- Use of a layering and titration system of key nutrients
- Close monitoring of the response elicited by the protocol
- Adjusting protocols and possibly recommending additional follow-up testing