Avoiding the pitfalls of methylation
In my practice, the question I get more than any other is about methylation. It is a confusing subject riddled with acronyms like MTHFR, SNPs and scary words like mutation. Because it happens throughout your body, it can affect your energy levels, cause digestive problems, fertility problems, and raise your risk of dementia, heart disease, and allergies.
My goal is to share my clinical insights regarding methylation so you can make some sense out of it and know if you are someone who should take action; whether that means changing up your supplements or doing some additional testing.
How well do you methylate?
Did you know it is possible for you to be an over, under or superstar methylator?
Without getting into the weeds and scaring you off, I want to quickly indulge my inner biochemistry nerd. Methylation is a biochemical process of attaching a carbon and three hydrogens to many critical molecules in your body. The process of methylation influences your immune system, cancer risk, genetics and detox pathways, and many others. Can you see how important methylation is to your health?
Attaching a methyl group is a natural biochemical process that maintains balance in the body system. Methyl groups, both adding and subtracting them, is essential to build things and break them down, turning them on and turning them off. Cells, hormones, neurotransmitters, toxins and lot of other molecules responsible for how you think, feel and function need to be in balance.
For example, some of the most clinically relevant things I measure are whole blood histamine and homocysteine. Both require a methyl group in order to be metabolized or broken down and eliminated. You can see how if you didn’t efficiently break down and eliminate any one thing – even a good thing – you would end up with too much of it.
In the case of homocysteine, that can turn into heart disease and inflammation.
In the case of histamine, that can mean depression and allergies.
How methylation works
Methyl groups and the process of adding or subtracting a methyl group is a well-conserved process. Nature, the human body included, doesn’t want to reinvent the wheel every time it needs to turn something on or off, make or breakdown something so this process of methylating and demethylating happens all over the body. This explains why poor methylators might complain of seemingly unrelated maladies like digestive issues, infertility, dementia, fatigue, heart disease, and allergies. This simple biochemical step is happening everywhere!
MTHFR is the A-list celebrity of SNPs, the Angelina Jolie or Beyonce of DNA. MTHFR stands for methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase. This is the part of our DNA that codes for the enzyme responsible for adding a methyl group to folate, an important B vitamin.
Now for just a teeny bit more of the chemistry of genetics: SNPs or single nucleotide polymorphisms refer to variations in your base pairs or the coding of our DNA.
MTHFR status, ie if you are wild type, homozygous or heterozygous is one way doctors determine how good you are at methylating or adding a CH3 group to the many molecules in your body that require them to maintain balance. In my clinical experience, I have seen this use of MTHFR status get people into trouble! You see, SNPs or single nucleotide polymorphisms are just that SINGLE, small changes – NOT mutations – in your DNA that are part of a very, very large puzzle.
Let me reassure you, you are a genetic miracle. The fact that you exist is a miracle. So, so, so many things had to go just right for you to be here. If you are here, which I think you are, because you are reading this article on methylation, then I know you are capable of methylating. In fact, it is even possible you are too good at methylating. Did you know there is such thing as an overmethylator?
Your environment can balance your genetics
Here is the thing: if you are only looking at your MTHFR status things can go only one way. Your doctor runs the test and says you have a “mutation”. They may say you have a heterozygous mutation or a homozygous mutation and this has been linked to any number of health problems and now you need lots of expensive B vitamins. Don’t get me wrong, methylated B vitamins are super helpful for a lot of people, but I don’t think one or two variants in your MTHFR status is how you decide that. There is a lot of redundancy or back up plans in the system.
What we miss when we are looking at our SNPs is that this is only our potential, not what is actually happening or being expressed by our genes. Your genetic code is, of course, important however the more we learn the more we realize that epigenetics or the environment which determines which of your genes are actualized is much more important. My favorite analogy is that of a house. Your DNA is the architect’s plans. These are the paper instructions for how to build the house. The same plans can be used to build lots of different houses. It could be white or blue, have carpet or tile, at the beach or in the mountains. That house could have heat or be very cold. We have some basic ideas from looking at the plans but there is a lot we don’t know until we visit the house and take a look inside.
What I find most valuable is seeing what is going on in your body. I want to know your symptoms – what you are experiencing and see the levels of histamine and homocysteine to know if you are a good methylator, an under-methylator or an over-methylator.
My teacher, Dr. Bill Walsh explains another common pitfall when talking about methylation status particularly with patients suffering from depression. Many people will start taking not only methylated B12 supplements but also methyl folate supplements when they learn they have an MTHFR variant. Folate supplementation decreases serotonin activity even in the methylfolate form. This means that although a depressed patient may benefit from methyl donors like methyl B12, methionine, SAMe or TMG they may actually be reducing serotonin activity if they also add methylfolate.
It’s the little things
Dr. Paul Anderson, Dr. Amy Yasko, Bob Miller and Dr. Ben Lynch who recently released his book “Dirty Genes” have contributed an incredible amount to the conversation of methylation. This is a brilliant group of experts who are digging deep into figuring out what our genetics mean for our health. I also know that they say over and over again to be sure your fundamentals are in order before you go blaming your last breakup on your SNPs. It is nice enough to blame Mom and Dad for not being able to get out of bed in the morning BUT good sleep, managing stressors, getting good exercise, creating solid relationships, and getting quality nutrients are all essential to having your genetics work for you. When there are big imbalances in your lifestyle habits it will make little imbalances in your genetics that much harder to cope with.
Written by: Dr. Heather Sandison, ND
North County Natural Medicine (760) 385-8683