What Is Methylation and Why Does It Matter For Your Health?

By Anthea Levi

If the word ‘methylation’ brings you back to high school chemistry class, don’t panic. Below, a registered dietitian breaks down the basics of methylation—no gen chem required!

What is Methylation?

To understand methylation, we first need to define methyl. A methyl group simply refers to a single carbon (C) that’s attached to three hydrogen (H) atoms to make CH3. The ‘methylation’ process involves the transfer of a methyl group from one compound to another.

What’s So Important About Methylation?

Methylation reactions are needed for some pretty important processes in the body, including turning genes “on” and “off,” a process that can affect our risk of chronic diseases such as cancer. Adequate methylation is also required for transforming harmful compounds—like pro-inflammatory homocysteine—into harmless compounds, like the amino acid methionine. Methylation is also essential for the production of key antioxidants such as glutathione and coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10).

Another reason why methylation matters: It’s a key component of detoxification pathways that occur in the liver. In particular, methylation reactions help detoxify heavy metals and inactivate excess estrogen in women.

RELATED: Estrogen Dominance: What It Is and Why You Can and Should Treat It

Problems With Methylation

Most methylation reactions rely on a methyl donor called S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe). SAMe is produced with the help of B vitamins, like the active forms of folate, called 5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF), and B12, called methylcobalamin.

The catch? Many of us possess genetic variants, or single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), that affect the enzymes needed to activate these nutrients. In fact, the CDC says that the number of people in the U.S. who have SNPs in the enzyme MTHFR (which turns folate into active 5-MTHF) is actually greater than the number of people who don’t have these variants.

Since a MTHFR SNP can lower the amount of active folate in the body (and active folate is needed for proper methylation), the genetic variant may down-regulate critical reactions in the body. The result is a potentially higher risk of various conditions, including:

  • Cardiovascular disease, including high blood pressure, stroke and increased clotting
  • Megaloblastic anemia
  • Fatigue
  • Neural tube defects in offspring
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Fertility struggles

RELATED: 7 Foods to Eat to Fight Anxiety & Depression

FYI: Having an SNP doesn’t guarantee any of the conditions listed above. In fact, some people have normal enzyme function (i.e. adequate methylation) despite possessing the polymorphism.

According to Genova Diagnostics, a laboratory that conducts its own extensive methylation panel test, other disruptions to the methylation cycle (beyond a genetic enzymatic predisposition) include: key amino acid deficiencies, a lack of vitamin and mineral cofactors, and a wide array of oxidative stressors. You can learn more about Genova’s methylation panel, which measures multiple biomarkers, here.

How Do I Know if My Methylation is Off?

The best way to determine whether you have a genetic variant that’s messing with methylation is to get a blood test. Elevated homocysteine levels, low B12 and folate levels may indicate inadequate methylation. Genetic tests can also identify MTHFR and other SNPs, such as an SHMT1 variant, which also affects methylation.

If tests reveal SNPs, high levels of homocysteine, or low levels of B vitamins, work with a licensed healthcare practitioner to determine the best next steps for you. For example, if you lack the ability to convert folate into active 5-MTHF, your provider may suggest taking a methylated form of the vitamin to sidestep your body’s faulty MTHFR enzyme.

But they also may not.

That’s because whether people should supplement with methylated or un-methylated B vitamins is a topic of debate in the healthcare community. For example, the CDC recommends only non-methylated folate supplements for women of childbearing age (even if they possess MTHFR variants), since this is the only form of the nutrient that has been studied—and proven effective—for preventing neural tube defects in clinical trials.

Many functional medicine experts, on the other hand, encourage anyone with methylation-related SNPs to supplement with methylated B vitamins, stating that the choice is both protective and harmless.

The bottom line: Talk to your healthcare provider about the best form of supplementation for you and your health. A methylated supplement may be right for you.

Essential Nutrients for Methylation

Cooked brussels sprouts with spinach and almonds on gray table

We’re all about eating empowered, so don’t think supplements are the only part of the healthy methylation equation. Nutrients from whole foods can also promote healthy methylation pathways.

Opt for foods rich in folate, like leafy greens (especially asparagus, spinach and Brussels sprouts), whole grains, beans, peanuts, eggs and sunflower seeds. Regularly including high- quality animal proteins, such as free-range eggs and organic, grass-fed beef, can help keep your B12 levels in check. Even your lifestyle choices can impact your folate levels; exercising regularly, reducing your alcohol intake and not smoking are all surprisingly helpful.

Following a vegan diet? Add a B12 supplement to your regimen and go for a methylated form if your provider thinks you’d benefit from one based on your labs.

Finally, other nutrients like choline, vitamin B6, and magnesium also support methylation reactions. Find our favorite, detox-friendly mineral—magnesium—in leafy greens, whole grains, black beans, cashews, pumpkin seeds and avocado.

(Images: Shutterstock)

About Anthea Levi
Anthea Levi, MS, RD, is a Brooklyn-based registered dietitian and health reporter. She currently works in private practice at Culina Health and contributes to various media outlets, including Livestrong.com and Nutritious Life.

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