Methylation is certainly not as sexy as the latest juice cleanse and it is perhaps a little nerdier than the latest superfoods, yet it has profound linkages to immune system health.

A relatively simplistic biochemical process with complex health implications, methylation has eluded the mainstream. Even in the natural health world, it has received only marginal attention. Methylation alters cells throughout the body in order to bolster the body’s immune response and increase the efficacy of a number of physiological functions. Meaning, with proper methylation, we have kick-ass immune systems that can get our bodies functioning at top form.

Ryah Nabielski, a Colorado-based registered dietitian/nutritionist who focuses on making dietary changes to prevent disease and promote healing says poor methylation can lead to all sorts of health issues, including:

  • Elevated homocysteine, an amino acid metabolized from methionine (associated with the breakdown of proteins in the body). Elevated homocysteine has been associated with heart disease and stroke
  • ADD, autism, bipolar and other mental disorders
  • Dementia and Alzheimer’s
  • Chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia
  • Infertility and miscarriage
  • Birth defects including spina bifida and cleft palate
  • Cancer
  • Autoimmune conditions
  • Low glutathione levels
  • Decreased ability for detoxification

Given the rather severe impacts of poor methylation, it seems imperative that we learn how to encourage methylation as part of our dietary efforts.

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Methylation

How Does Methylation Work?

In rudimentary terms, methylation occurs with the addition of methyl groups, molecular constructions consisting of a single carbon and three hydrogen atoms, intto other molecules. Conversely, demethylation occurs when those same methyl groups are removed. Within the body, methylation combines the methyl groups with proteins, DNA, and other molecules creating molecular compounds that increase the body’s function and immune response.

Simplistically speaking, it is easiest to conceptualize the methyl groups as on/off switches that regulate essential body functions. When methyl groups are present, the body functions more optimal. Autoimmune wizard Michelle Corey points out that methyl groups control:

  • Stress (fight-or-flight) response
  • Production and recycling of glutathione—the body’s master antioxidant
  • Detoxification of hormones, chemicals and heavy metals
  • Inflammation response
  • Genetic expression and the repair of DNA
  • Neurotransmitters and the balancing of brain chemistry
  • Energy production
  • Repair of cells damaged by free radicals
  • Immune response, controlling T-cell production, fighting infections and viruses and regulating the immune response

Methylation is currently being studied under the emerging field of nutritional genomics, or nutrigenomics, a multidisciplinary scientific inquiry that examines the role of genetic differences and how our bodies respond to these nutrients within foods. Nutrigenomics moves outside of our conventional and generalized understandings of human health to integrate knowledge from nutrition, physiology, molecular biology, sociology, and ethics in an understanding of personalized medicine and nutrition.

A Case Of Nature And Nurture

So how do we get proper methylation going on in our systems? Our individual propensities toward proper methylation and the process itself involve the sorts of complex social, environmental, and genetic intersections that lie at the heart of nutrigenomics.

In addition to being influenced by genetic factors, methylation can also be influenced by environmental factors (such as exposure to toxins or long-term poverty). Research points to the idea that more long-term induced social and environmental factors can either interfere with or increase the demand for methylation. Poverty provides one example of induced environmental factors due to its association with additional stress factors and malnutrition.

Methylation can provide important epigenetic functions within the body. Among these epigenetic functions, DNA methylation has been associated with long-term memory function and a number of other disorders including various cancers, intellectual disability, immune disorders, neuropsychiatric disorders, and pediatric disorders.

Epigenetics is the genetic combination between nature and nurture. Essentially, our genome contains a DNA sequence, which is passed on to us via genetic inheritance. Our genotype (the particular genes carried by an individual) is the product of genetic inheritance, but it is not the only source of inherited genetic function. Epigenetics examines our phenotype (the traits that manifest within our bodies through the combination of genetic coding and environmental factors). The genes we possess may be either active or inactive, and while our genotype contains all of our genes, whether they are active is a function of our phenotype.

Phenotypes are expressed through epigenetic codes that cause specific genes to be active or inactive. Research shows that our phenotype is also passed to us through inheritance. The stresses or stimuli that our parents are exposed to set the default state for our phenotype through epigenetic coding.

As Virginia Hughes, a journalist with Nature, reports, epigenetics add an additional layer to our genetic composition through “chemical changes to the genome that affect how DNA is packaged and expressed without altering its sequence.”

Unfortunately, determining precisely what nutritional factors each person needs for proper methylation is unrealistic. However, there are specific tests available for methylation health interventions.

In looking at autoimmune issues, the role of methylation plays heavily into the body’s production of glutathione. Glutathione functions as the body’s “master antioxidant.”  It exists within every cell and is crucial in removing toxins and the oxidation of free radicals. Research by Bruce Richardson, Professor of Internal Medicine at University of Michigan, has shown glutathione also supports the immune system in combating bacteria and viruses.  

Methylation exists in an unraveling shroud of mystery that science is continually evolving to understand; however, from a nutritional standpoint, encouraging methylation aligns with dietary practices that are reflective of healthy eating in general. The nutrients vital to methylation are found in three groups of nutritional compounds: B Vitamins, Betaine and SAMe (S-Adenosylmethionine).

The Role of MTHFR in Methylation

Dr. Alex Rinehart, a Chiropractor and Certified Nutrition Specialist based in Arizona, highlights the controversy within the complexity of methylation responses pointing specifically to the buzz surrounding the MTHFR (methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase) gene. Central to the process of folate methylation is the MTHFR gene. The MTHFR gene has become a bit of a celebrity gene in conversations involving nutrigenomics and epigenetics. MTHFR is the enzyme responsible for activating folate through methylation. The resulting “activated” folate can perform essential functions.

The sad reality is some individuals produce MTHFR enzymes that simply function less optimally than others.

While the focus on MTHFR and the MTHFR gene often leads to a sort of knee-jerk response, causing individuals to associate MTHFR enzymes that function less optimally with inhibited methylation, the actual issue is somewhat more complex. Ultimately the methylation “bottlenecks” created by MTHFR enzymes—that function less than optimally—can in some cases be compensated for by diet, whereas in other cases, more direct folate intake through supplements may be necessary.

The dynamics at play are personalized to the individual and require a similarly individualized understanding. Beyond making dietary changes that aim to encourage the body’s methylation efficacy overall, addressing methylation issues requires specific testing such as organic acid testing, analysis via services like 23andme.com (which offers genotyping and DNA analysis resulting in personalized reports), and assessing homocysteine levels.  

Genetic finger pointing is prevalent within articles on methylation, but understanding the genetic factors and the reasons for symptoms manifesting within individuals requires a more in-depth investigation.  

Maximize Methylation With These 6 Tips:

  1. Consume more dark, leafy greens such as kale, collards, chard, spinach, etc. that provide some of the more plentiful sources of the B vitamins required for methylation.
  2. Avoid excess animal protein. Animal proteins contribute to elevated levels of homocysteine, a chemical associated with increased risk of heart attack and other cardiovascular problems. Increase your consumption of B vitamins within your diet. Folate, a B vitamin, can be found in sunflower seeds, beans, strawberries, citrus fruits, milk, eggs, and nuts (pecans, pine nuts, sesame seeds)  
  3. Eliminate your intake of processed foods and fast foods.
  4. Limit caffeine and alcohol consumption, which depletes your body’s levels of B vitamins.
  5. Increase probiotics with healthy bacteria and probiotics, such as those found in yogurts and fermented foods or optimized probiotic supplements. Probiotics aid in the absorption of vitamins.
  6. Increase your consumption of B vitamins within your diet. Folate, a B vitamin, can be found in sunflower seeds, beans, strawberries, citrus fruits, milk, eggs, and nuts (pecans, pine nuts, sesame seeds)

Learn about methylation with this video and optimize Methylation

Josh O’Conner is an urban/land use planner with a passion for urban agriculture. He can be reached at @kalepiracy or @joshoconner on Twitter

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