Methylation is a key biochemical process that is essential for the proper function of almost all of your body’s systems. It occurs billions of times every second; it helps repair your DNA on a daily basis; it controls homocysteine (an unhealthy compound that can damage blood vessels); it helps recycle molecules needed for detoxification; and it helps maintain mood and keep inflammation in check.
To keep methylation running smoothly you need optimal levels of B vitamins. Without enough B vitamins methylation breaks down, and the results can be catastrophic. In these cases we see more birth defects like spina bifida, more cases of Down’s syndrome, and more miscarriage.
A breakdown in methylation also puts you at higher risk for conditions like osteoporosis, diabetes, cervical dysplasia and cancer, colon cancer, lung cancer, depression, pediatric cognitive dysfunction ( mood and other behavioral disorders), dementia, stroke and may put you at a higher risk of heart disease.
To avoid all of these problems, the key is to maximize methylation. That means avoiding the things that cause your methylation to break down, testing to find out how well your methylation is working, and including the things that support proper methylation. Let’s look at how to do that.
8 Factors that Affect Your Methylation Process
- Genetics – Like an estimated 20 percent of us, you could be genetically predisposed to high homocysteine
- Poor diet – The word “folate” comes from “foliage.” You need to eat plenty of leafy greens, beans, fruit, and whole grains to get adequate levels of vitamins B6 and B12, betaine, and folate. Egg yolks, meat, liver, and oily fish are the main dietary sources of vitamin B12 — so long-term vegan diets can be a problem. Plus, certain compounds can raise levels of homocysteine and deplete the B vitamins. These include excess animal protein, sugar, saturated fat, coffee, and alcohol. Irradiation of food depletes nutrients, so foods treated this way may be lower in B vitamins, too
- Smoking – The carbon monoxide from cigarette smoke inactivates vitamin B6
- Malabsorption – Conditions like digestive diseases, food allergies, and even aging can reduce absorption of nutrients
- Decreased stomach acid – Aging and other conditions can reduce stomach acid — and therefore absorption of vitamin B12
- Medications – Drugs like acid blockers, methotrexate (for cancer and arthritis and other autoimmune diseases), oral contraceptives, HCTZ (for high blood pressure), and Dilantin (for seizures) can all affect levels of B vitamins
- Other conditions – These include hypothyroidism, kidney failure or having only one kidney, cancer, and pregnancy
- Toxic exposures – Some toxins can interfere with vitamin production
Watch out for these factors and you will go a long way toward protecting your methylation.
Measuring Your Own Methylation Process
To find out if your methylation process is optimal, ask your doctor for the following tests:
- Complete blood count – Large red blood cells or anemia can be a sign of poor methylation. Red blood cells with a mean corpuscular volume (MCV) greater than 95 can signal a methylation problem
- Homocysteine – This is one of the most important tests you can ask for. The normal level is less than 13, but the ideal level is likely between 6 and 8
- Serum or urinary methylmalonic acid – This is a more specific test for vitamin B12 insufficiency. Your levels may be elevated even if you have a normal serum vitamin B12 or homocysteine level
- Specific urinary amino acids – These can be used to look for unusual metabolism disorders involving vitamins B6 or B12 or folate, which may not show up just by checking methylmalonic acid or homocysteine
12 Tips to Optimize Your Methylation Process
Just as there are many causes of poor methylation, there are lots of things that support its proper functioning. Here’s how to maximize methylation — and prevent conditions like heart disease, cancer, dementia, depression, and more.
- Eat more dark, leafy greens – You want to eat l cup a day of vegetables like bok choy, escarole, Swiss chard, kale, watercress, spinach, or dandelion, mustard, collard, or beet greens. These are among the most abundant sources of the nutrients needed for optimal methylation
- Get more Bs in your diet – Good food sources include sunflower seeds and wheat germ (vitamin B6); fish and eggs (vitamin B6 and B12); cheese (B12); beans and walnuts (vitamin B6 and folate); leafy dark green vegetables; asparagus, almonds, and whole grains (folate); and liver (all three)
- Minimize poor quality animal protein, sugar, and saturated fat – Animal protein directly increases homocysteine. Sugar and saturated fat deplete your body’s vitamin stores
- Avoid processed foods and canned foods – These are depleted in vitamins
- Avoid caffeine – Excess amounts can deplete your B vitamin levels
- Limit alcohol to 3 drinks a week – More than this can deplete your B vitamin levels
- Don’t smoke – As noted above, smoking inactivates vitamin B6
- Avoid medications that interfere with methylation – See notes on this above
- Keep the bacteria in your gut healthy – Take probiotic supplements and use other measures to make sure the bacteria in your gut are healthy so you can properly absorb the vitamins you do get
- Improve stomach acid – Use herbal digestives (bitters) or taking supplemental HCl
- Take supplements that prevent damage from homocysteine –Antioxidants protect you from homocysteine damage. Also make sure you support methylation with supplements like magnesium and zinc
- Supplement to help support proper homocysteine metabolism – Talk to your doctor to determine the best doses and forms for you. Here are a few suggestions:
Folate (folic acid): Amounts can vary based on individual needs from 200 mcg to 1 mg. Some people may also need to take preformed folate (folinic acid or 5 formylTHF) to bypass some of the steps in activating folic acid
Vitamin B6: Take 2 to 5 mg a day. Some people may need up to 250 mg or even special “active” B6 (pyridoxyl-5-phosphate) to achieve the greatest effect. Doses higher than 500 mg may cause nerve injury
Vitamin B12: Doses of 500 mcg may be needed to protect against heart disease. Oral vitamin B12 isn’t well absorbed; you may need up to 1 or 2 mg daily. Ask your doctor about B12 shots
Betaine: This amino acid derivative is needed in doses from 500 to 3,000 mg a day, depending on the person