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Demystifying Methylation

Lots of people are confused about MTHFR, methylation and how vitamins B12 and B9 are linked with them. Here you’ll find a simple explanation on what methylation is all about and how it can impact you.


What is Methylation?

Methylation is a process where one compound donates a methyl-group to another molecule. A methyl-group is one carbon plus three hydrogen atoms joined together. This simple process occurs in many of the numerous biochemical processes taking place every day in the body.

We need efficient methylation in order to remove heavy metals from the body, properly produce DNA, support nervous system function and repair blood vessels, as well as produce the powerful antioxidant glutathione and recycle homocysteine (just to name a few).

Methylation literally occurs trillions of times every second, so when it is interrupted or altered it can result in a myriad of different issues.


Differences in Methylation:

When the methylation cycle is in balance, neurotransmitters are produced, homocysteine is recycled, DNA is methylated and glutathione is made! But some people can be over-methylators and some can be under-methylators, which can upset the scales.

Under-methylation is when too little methyl is present. It can lead to a depletion of essential neurotransmitters and a lack of methylation can increase inflammatory chemicals like histamine, leaving those affected sensitive to depression.

In contrast, over-methylation is when there are too many methyl-groups. This can produce excess neurotransmitters which may become overactive. In this case, there is “too much of a good thing” as it is associated with reduced motivation and libido, high anxiety levels and chemical sensitivities.

Impairment of methylation reactions can result in a condition of high levels of homocysteine known as hyperhomocysteinaemia. We all have some homocysteine in our blood, but high levels may cause irritation of the blood vessels, leading to further complications.

What is MTHFR?

No, it’s not short for a swear word, although it does look naughty enough! It is an abbreviation of methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase – an enzyme that converts folic acid (Vitamin B9) to its active form of methylfolate and is involved in the homocysteine-methionine cycle.

The Human Genome Project identified the MTHFR gene responsible for creating the enzyme, as well as polymorphisms (mutations) of the gene that effects its ability to produce the enzyme. It’s since been suggested that up to 60% of the general Australian population may have these polymorphisms, although not everyone is affected by them.

MTHFR mutations can cause a down-regulation of methylation. People with two mutations (known as homozygous) generally experience more severe symptoms than single mutations (heterozygous). Other genetic mutations were also identified, each associated with different consequences.


How are B vitamins involved in Methylation?

Methylation is dependent on enzymes, but it also needs the right supply of nutrients for those enzymes to take effect.

Folate (Vitamin B9) and Vitamin B12 are involved in the methylation cycle.

  • B12 is methylated to its active form, and is enzymatically involved in the transfer of a methyl-group to homocysteine, producing methionine.
  • Folate is methylated to its active form and with B12 converts homocysteine back to methionine.
  • Without good folate metabolism, B12 won’t be able to perform its proper function.

If a system is over-methylating and producing excess homocysteine, it may require extra folate and B12 (preferably already activated) to reduce the need for the methylation cycle to occur. If under-methylation is occurring, the B vitamins should generally be avoided.


What can I do?

A good first step is to look at the food you’re eating. A low sugar, plant-based diet that is low in processed food, colours and preservatives is recommended, as is maintaining a healthy weight and exercising regularly.

Due to the complexity of methylation and the differences involved, it is essential to consult with a health practitioner for necessary testing of the MTHFR gene, homocysteine, neurotransmitter and B vitamin status before beginning a treatment plan.