Methylation is a natural and essential chemical process in the body. It is the addition of a single carbon and three hydrogen atoms (called a methyl group CH3) to another molecule. Removing a methyl group from something is called demethylation. This process is occurring countless times per hour without any of your conscious control.
It is one of the many miraculous controlling mechanisms the body utilizes. And it is responsible for turning things on/off or speeding up/slowing down a myriad of essential reactions including:
- Turning on/off your unique gene code sequence (DNA)
- Repairing your DNA
- Making the chemicals in your brain called neurotransmitters that control your brain chemistry aka your moods (mental health)
- Making and recycling your glutathione the body’s most powerful antioxidant responsible for protecting your cells from destruction from oxidative stress, free radicals, infection, and cancer
- Repairing cells damaged by oxidative stress
- Detoxifying hormones, neurotransmitters and other chemicals, and dangerous heavy metals
- The normal fight-or-flight stress response needed to survive
- Your inflammatory response and whether it will be over-active as in autoimmune disease
- Regulating normal immune response to fight viruses and infections and making T cells
A lot of who we are depends upon our ability to methylate properly. Most of the population has normal methylation status. But roughly 20% appear to be consistently under-methylating, while roughly 10% appear to be consistently over-methylating. We find that these things run in families since there is a genetic consideration.
These variations in the expression of our genetic personalities provide the variety of who we are as individuals and is the basis of biochemical individuality. For most under or over-methylaters, there is no dangerous pathology present. Yet, still, this chronic status can lead to specific nutrient deficits that will absolutely take a toll on health over time. And, of the 30% of the population who fall within this group, some are suffering from severe illness ranging from fibromyalgia to chronic depression to schizophrenia to ADHD. For this latter group, understanding and advising appropriate nutrient therapy can be the final missing piece in their never ending quest for relief.
Typically, an individual will have the combination of genetic SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms, the most common type of genetic variation among people; represents a difference in a single DNA building block) and have the ENVIRONMENT (lifestyle, food, air, water, mental attitude) that leads to an expression of these genes. Most under-methylaters have a certain personality: a little bit anxious, a little bit OCD, a little bit perfectionistic, high achieving, successful, strong willed, competitive, likely to suffer from seasonal allergies and Seasonal Affective Disorder, high whole blood histamine levels. This is not a “mutation” that means they are broken. It simply means this person needs are different than a normal or over-methylater. They struggle to find and generate enough methyl donors (i.e., SAMe) to perform some of the methyl functions efficiently. They can benefit from certain supplements, dietary and lifestyle choices to help the methylation cycle, thereby increasing their ability to fight infection, feel calmer, and suffer from fewer allergies, to name a few benefits.
When under-methylation is severe, we can see intrusive obsessive compulsive thinking or behaviors, oppositional defiant disorder, severe seasonal depression. These individuals typically have low serotonin, calcium, magnesium, methionine, and Vitamin B-6 levels but excessive levels of folic acid.
Individuals who over-methylate create too many methylation reactions. They are often very caring and artistic and under achievers. However, because there are too many methyl reactions, they end up with excess dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and usually copper and methionine as well. This brain chemistry imbalance can lead to severe anxiety, panic, sleep disorders, or even psychosis.
The good news is that it is possible to support and correct brain chemistry by starting with the foundation: lifestyle. Looking at your environment is the critical first step in creating balance. The environment is what is controlling the expression of your gene code. Once that foundation of the right food, clean chemical free water, the best air quality you can achieve, and making an effort to improve your mental attitude is addressed, then and only then is it worth beginning to investigate if methylation status needs to be discovered and specifically supported via supplements. All too often, we are programmed to “take this pill for this symptom or condition.” That will simply not work to correct the underlying cause of these imbalances, especially in the brain. If you have the genetic profile that leaves you with considerably less glutathione producing enzymes than normal, you may want to take either a methyl donor to help or glutathione directly. However, thinking you can simply take glutathione and ignore the fact that you’re more sensitive to your glutathione levels being depleted than average will not lead you to take responsibility and make any lifestyle changes to avoid glutathione depletion.
A Word of Caution
The research on methylation is relatively new and not clearly understood by very many traditional providers. It is absolutely the new darling love child in the Functional Medicine circles, and you can be sure to see it showing up everywhere very soon.
That’s great news and not-so-great news all in one. The great news is that more primary care providers will be forced into learning about it as the public demands it. More people will seek out methylation experts and get the care they truly need. Research will continue to expand, and more knowledge of how to access the internal healing power of the body will be gained. The downside to this expansion of knowledge includes a number of things:
1) Trying to Google and self-correct any “Condition X” supposedly caused by a certain genetic SNP they discover through convenient and affordable self-testing labs by treating it with “Supplement Y” in the hopes it will cure the condition without any understanding of how the other 23,000 genes are affecting that one SNP
2) Practitioners beginning to “dabble” in the field without adequate training or experience rather than referring for support
3) Experienced practitioners not evolving as the science evolves or staying stuck on what SHOULD be happening with their patients rather than adjusting treatment based upon how the patients are actually responding to the nutrient therapy
4) Individuals blaming their genes for any condition and not taking personal responsibility to make the changes in their lives to change the environment that is actually controlling the epigenetic expression of the SNPs