How You Can Sum Up Almost All of Disease Prevention in One Word
What if there was a word that can sum up almost all of disease prevention? That word, according to some experts in the field of genetics and medicine, is methylation.
Why You Should Care about Methylation
Methylation is a biochemical process that happens in every cell of your body. That’s how vital it is. Each and every one of us would not be able to exist without it. Simply put, it’s a process wherein a molecule transfers a methyl group (made up of 1 carbon atom connected to 3 hydrogen atoms) to another molecule. The result of this transfer is the creation of important molecules like melatonin, phosphatidylcholine, CoQ10, creatinine, carnitine and so much more. It also has a hand in the production of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) which is the energy currency of every cell and It’s where you get your energy from. Methylation occurs approximately a billion times per second. You can just imagine what could happen if it stops or if it occurs on a reduced scale!
Some Reasons Why Methylation is Essential
Even though methylation affects every cell, tissue and organ in your body, here are some of its key roles:
- Methylation loves your brain. The methylation process affects your brain, particularly the production of neurotransmitters (brain messengers). If your body has difficulties with methylation, you can suffer from depression, anxiety, ADHD, autism and different types of behavioural and cognitive problems.
- Methylation gets hungry and targets your gut. Australia has one of the highest rates of reported food allergies on a global scale. In fact, it’s estimated that one in 10 babies born in Australia will develop a food allergy. New Zealand is not far behind with 10% of infants having a food allergy to common foods such as eggs, peanuts and milk. Luckily most children will outgrow their allergies, though a chosen few must deal with their allergies throughout their lives.
When you have a food allergy, a gut messenger in the form of histamine is partially responsible for the inflammatory reaction and subsequent signs and symptoms (e.g. diarrhoea) following the reaction. A specific enzyme called diamine oxidase (DAO for short) breaks down excess histamine. But to produce this enzyme, you need the methylation process. If your cells have difficulties methylating, then you can suffer from histamine intolerance because you don’t have enough of the enzyme to degrade the histamine. Your body isn’t able to handle the histamine load.
- Methylation and detoxification. When you detoxify, you require glutathione. In order to produce glutathione, you need methylation. Most of us are familiar with glutathione as the “Master Antioxidant”. Without sufficient supplies of this antioxidant, we set ourselves up for a variety of health problems. It may not be as simple as that if you analyse the biochemical process in detail, but in layman’s terms, it is. Without methylation, you reduce your body’s capacity to detoxify and you become vulnerable to anything from environmental toxins to heavy metal toxicity.
- Methylation is partially responsible for which genetic diseases you are susceptible to or develop. When a gene (the genetic material inside your cells) decides to express itself physically, like when you have asthma and your kid gets asthma too, a defect in methylation is partially responsible for that. Because of insufficient methylation, a methyl group may not be able to attach itself to your DNA to activate it or silence it, either way methylation forms a huge part.
The MTHFR Gene Mutations
Now let’s expand on the last paragraph and focus on diseases connected with poor methylation. Let me introduce you to MTHFR. Let’s orient ourselves to some basic terms first, nothing fancy, just the basics.
All of us have genes. They’re a set of genetic instructions that decide and determine what we will look like. They also determine how we will survive and behave in relation to our environment. Our genes are stored in strands of DNA called chromosomes.
All of us have a methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase gene. I am sure you’ll agree to settle with its abbreviated name, MTHFR gene. The function of this gene is to give instructions for the production of the enzyme, methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase. This enzyme is essential for methylation to occur. For example it’s required for the conversion of the amino acid homocysteine to another amino acid, methionine. Methionine is important for the production of proteins and other vital compounds in the body.
If there’s something wrong with your MTHFR gene (like a mutation), the production of the enzyme can be affected. If you have a mutated gene that produces a faulty enzyme, you’ll end up with faulty or a lower production of end products (proteins). Unfortunately, there are several types of mutations which affect this important gene. Each one can affect the production of the enzyme to variable degrees. The end result? You may experience signs and symptoms of diseases related to these mutations.
Some of you may even be inquisitive enough to ask why and how some of these MTHFR gene mutations occur? One theory is because of viruses. A recent study found that rhinoviruses can cause increased DNA methylation of the cells lining your air passages. Increased methylation could provide an explanation for why viruses cause an asthma attack in those who have asthma. Methylation isn’t only harmful when it’s reduced or lacking, it may also be harmful in excess. Rhinoviruses are the most common infectious microorganisms around the world and are responsible for the common cold.
There are two common MTHFR gene mutations we should become familiar with:
There are over 50 identified MTHFR gene mutations, but we’ll focus on the two most common ones:
MTHFR C677T & MTHFR A1298C. C677T is the most well researched of the MTHFR mutations and causes the most problems. While a A1298C MTHFR mutation is less of a problem unless you have one copy of this mutation from one parent and one copy of C677T from your other parent.
Having one or both of these mutations MAY cause you to be more susceptible to a variety of signs, symptoms and diseases. Most people who have just one of these MTHFR mutations may not manifest any symptoms. This is because you need to receive two copies of each gene (one from Mum and one from your Dad). If you have two copies of C677T or one copy of C677T and one copy of A1298T you are at a greater risk for the following problems.
Here are some signs and symptoms which tell you that you MAY have one or both mutations:
- 1. Delayed speech
- 2. Muscle pains
- 3. Insomnia
- 4. Hand tremor
- 5. Headaches
- 6. Brain fog
- 7. High blood pressure
- 8. Diarrhoea
- 9. Gastrointestinal tract ulcers
- 10. Muscle tenderness
Here is a list of diseases you MAY develop or acquire if you have the one or both mutations:
- 1. Hypertension and all of its complications
- 2. Chronic fatigue syndrome
- 3. Fibromyalgia
- 4. Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- 5. Pre-eclampsia
- 6. Erectile Dysfunction
- 7. Parkinson’s Disease
- 8. Alzheimer’s Disease
- 9. ADHD
- 10. Cancer – different types
- 11. Autism
- 12. Depression
- 13. Multiple sclerosis
- 14. Spina bifida
- 15. Turner syndrome
- 16. Rheumatoid arthritis
- 17. Homocystinuria
- 18. Congenital heart disease
- 19. Deep vein venous thrombosis
What can I do if I have one or both of these common MTHFR gene mutations?
Please note that we strongly recommend working together with your healthcare practitioner when choosing and taking supplements.
- Since you have a problem with the methylation process, you can develop certain deficiencies, especially vitamin B deficiencies. So it’s best to supplement with nutrients which are already methylated. Methylated nutrients are nutrients that are already in their activated forms, hence no need for the methylation process which is lacking or reduced in those with the gene mutations. There are a variety of nutrients needed, but here are the most important ones:
L-methylfolate. L-methylfolate is the active form of vitamin B9. Take this instead of folic acid (a synthetic form of B9). Your body needs it for the growth and reproduction of EVERY cell in your body. Compared to folic acid, L-methylate can freely cross your blood brain barrier. That’s the crossroads between your brain and vascular system, it’s where they communicate. Foods rich in natural include strawberries, citrus fruits and leafy green vegetables, however if you have MTHFR gene mutations food alone is not enough. These foods contain natural folates but your body must still convert them to their methylated form. Its also crucial to avoid all folic acid containing supplements and fortified foods.
Methylcobalamin. Methylcobalamin is the active form of vitamin B12 and is also required for healthy methylation. It’s used to prevent pernicious anaemia. If you don’t have enough of it, you can develop peripheral neuropathy (nerve problems in your distal extremities) or diabetic neuropathy (if you have diabetes). Foods rich in this nutrient include meat, fish, milk and eggs. Go for organic of course.
Note: Studies have already documented the value of vitamin B supplementation. They help a lot especially in the alleviation of symptoms. All the other B vitamins are important, not just the two mentioned above. This is because they’re water soluble, hence rapidly depleted from your body. You can just imagine what being water soluble plus having an MTHFR gene mutation could do to your supply of these nutrients. Poof!
- Stay away from heavy metals. Don’t use products which contain them like cookware, antiperspirants and chemical cleaning and cosmetic products. Also take care with fish and fish oil supplements as these can be contaminated with heavy metals.
- Don’t eat processed foods. They can contain unhealthy synthetic folic acid which competes with your own supply of methyfolate.
- Aim for organic meats and dairy products. No GMOs please.
- If you do have any of these two common MTHFR genetic mutations, share this information with family members so that they too can be tested.
Some Drugs You Need to Avoid if You Have the MTHFR Gene Mutations
- 1. Triamterene, sulfamethosazole and trimethoprim, sulfasalazine, any of the antimalarial drugs. These drugs inhibit our star enzyme, methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase. This means they reduce the productiveness of this enzyme.
- 2. Phenytoin, carbamazepine. These compete with the absorption of folate into your system.
- 3. Antacids. These bind with your vitamin B12 and decrease its absorption.
- 4. Cholestyramine. Decreases folate and B12 absorption from your food.
Note: if you are already taking one or more of these medications, consult your doctor to discuss alternative options.
Remember, methylation in relation to gene mutations is just a small part of the big picture of what methylation does for your body. When equated to disease prevention, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more that we can do to prevent certain diseases. For the MTHFR gene, there are several mutations. The two most common mutations were discussed above and their signs and symptoms listed. You may or may not manifest the signs and symptoms even if you have the mutation. It’s always the result of an interplay between you, your environment, your lifestyle and interaction with other mutations.
Leading a healthy lifestyle is certainly doing what you can to avoid the mutation expressing itself or minimising the symptoms it causes. Support the methylation process. If you can do that, then you’re well on the way to preventing most forms of chronic disease.
Note: If you want to know if you have one or both mutations, ask your healthcare practitioner how you can be tested for it.
- Kasper, D. L., Fauci, A. S., Hauser, S. L., Longo, D. L., Jameson, J. L., & Loscalzo, J. (2015). Harrison’s principles of internal medicine (19th ed.). New York: McGraw Hill Education.
- Baynes, J., & Dominiczak, M. H. (2014). Medical biochemistry (fourth ed.). Philadelphia: Saunders.
- Schaefer, G. B., & Thompson, J. N. (2014). Medical genetics: an integrated approach. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.