Methylation has generated a lot of attention in recent years. It is an example of one of the many mechanisms of what's called "epigenetics."
In layman's terms epigenetics refers to things like your lifestyle, your environment and the other choices you make that impact how your DNA is expressed. In fact genetics account for only an estimated 20% of chronic health issues. The other 80% is attributed to epigenetics.
In this blog, I will briefly discuss what methylation is, how you can support methylation through food. Since methylation responds to epigenetics (nutritional and environmental influences) diet and nutrition is incredibly important to healthy methylation balance and optimal gene expression.
Methylation is the process by which our epigenetics regulate gene expression. Methylation is the transfer of one carbon methyl group from one molecule to another that either activates or deactivates that molecule:
1. Your DNA consists of four bases, called cytosine, guanine, adenine, and thymine.
2. A chemical unit called a methyl group, which contains one carbon and three hydrogen atoms, can be added to cytosine.
3. When this happens, that area of the DNA is methylated.
4. When you lose that methyl group, the area becomes demethylated.
This single carbon metabolic process is mediated by enzymes such as methyltetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR), catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT), and cystathione beta-synthase (CBS).
Each person’s genetic fingerprint, in the form of what is called an “SNP” (single nucleotide polymorphism) dictates how efficiently these enzymes work.
Methylation is greatly dependent on the presence of certain nutrients that act as co-factors to keep the process moving smoothly.
When optimal methylation occurs, it has a significant positive impact on many biochemical reactions in the body that regulate the activity of the cardiovascular, neurological, reproductive, and detoxification systems, including those relating to things like liver health, eye health, estrogen metabolism, fat metabolism, histamine metabolism, cellular energy, the production of DNA and neurotransmitters, and detoxification.
Methylation and Nutrient Status
When it comes to nutrient status and methylation, most attention has been focused on folate and the MTHFR gene variant. In those with MTHFR gene variants, folate and folic acid metabolism is inhibited, resulting in the vitamin not being properly reduced to its active form, which is called 5-methyl-tetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF).
In these cases, methylated b-vitamins, including naturally derived 5-MTHF are often recommended.
Synthetic folic acid is specifically avoided to prevent a possible build-up of unmetabolized folic acid, which is potentially genotoxic and may pose health risks.
It’s important to replenish suboptimal levels of B vitamins and other nutrients from methylation foods to support healthy methylation, but there have been some concerns about the potential negative effects of overmethylation, or “hypermethylation.”
I have seen this personally in my coaching- individuals so concerned with not methylating properly that they supplement themselves right into hypermethylation.
This is why many professionals feel that the safest way to support balanced methylation is through the diet. Many people do not tolerate methyl donor supplementation well, but because methylation is dependent on nutrient co-factors, your diet can support proper methylation by providing essential nutrients that act as methyl donors, or fuel for methylation pathways.
Since I have always been a "food first" coach, I tend to agree with this line of thought, and have had success in supporting clients with poor methlyation by encouraging them to bring awareness to their diet, rather than encouraging they take supplements.
Foods to Support Methylation
Diets naturally high in methylation foods can be used to support methylation either with or without supplementation. In addition to the vitamins and minerals present in food, certain phytonutrients have epigenetic activity that supports methylation balance.
Many phytonutrients are considered methylation adaptogens. They have been found to influence DNA methyl transferases (DNMT).
DNMT are the enzymes that carry out methylation, and are therefore the transcribers of epigenetic influences on gene expression.
These DMNT regulators include curcumin, ellagic acid, lycopene, quercetin, resveratrol, rosmarinic acid, and sulforaphane.
So I will also share sources of these below as well.
**It is also worth noting that pesticides put a strain on methylation pathways, which is one of MANY reasons to purchase organic. Minimizing pesticide exposure is one simple way to support methylation.
Super-charged Methylation Foods
Vegetables are a key component for methylation support because they provide many nutrients and flavonoids which are methylation adaptogens.
Methylation adaptogens help regulate methylation status in the human body, particularly at our DNA level.
These adaptogens have been demonstrated to prevent or reverse over-methylation as well as support healthy methylation activity. And dietary fiber is essential to promote a balanced microbiome as well as the efficient removal of toxins.
The healthy microbes in our gut actually produce considerable amounts of methylation nutrients. But only when consuming a proper diet that includes fiber.
Color variation will provide the most diverse amount of flavonoid methylation adaptogens, but two categories of vegetables to prioritize are dark leafy greens and cruciferous veggies.
Dark leafy greens
When you think folate, think foliage. Dark leafy greens like kale, spinach, bok choy, escarole, collard greens, beet greens, mustard greens, and turnip greens are excellent sources of folate, B vitamins, and magnesium.
Aside from being detoxification superfoods, cruciferous veggies are also considered methylation adaptogens thanks to their sulforaphane and folate content. Cruciferous vegetables include more then Brussels and broccoli. They also include arugula, bok choy, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, rutabaga, radish and turnips.
This organ meat is one of the most abundant sources of folate, choline, vitamin B6, vitamin B2, vitamin B12 as well as methylation mineral cofactors like copper, zinc, iron and chromium. Pesticides, heavy metals and other toxins put a strain on methylation pathways, so organic grass fed beef liver or organic free-range chicken liver are strongly recommended.
Beet root and their green leafy parts are nearly always included as part of optimal “methylation diets” because they are very high in betaine, a choline metabolite that acts as a methyl donor.
Beans and legumes
Lentils and pinto beans contain some of the highest amounts of folate and the trace mineral molybdenum per serving. Peas are also high in molybdenum, an important methylation mineral, as well as folate, copper and vitamin B1. Beans and legumes are also great sources of amino acids, which are important to maintaining healthy methionine levels.
I recommend that you soak and sprout your legumes before cooking to improve their digestibility and nutrient bioavailability. This also reduces leptin levels, which can be helpful for individuals with compromised gut health or an autoimmune condition.
You can do this by soaking the legumes overnight in filtered water, then drain, rinse, and return them to their container. Leave loosely covered with a clean tea towel between 6 to 24 hours until you see tiny sprout ends starting to appear. Then they are ready to cook.
Wild Caught Fish
Fish (scallops, wild salmon, and cod) is rich in B6, B12 and choline, all of which are crucial for proper methylation. Food sources containing vitamin B-12 tend to be animal sources, so if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, make sure to pay attention to your vitamin B-12 intake!
Mushrooms, particularly shiitake mushrooms, are considered methylation adaptogens, because of their demonstrated ability to reduce serum homocysteine levels. They contribute choline, vitamin B5, niacin, riboflavin, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 to the diet, as well as copper and selenium.
Seeds are tiny nutrient powerhouses, high in folate, B vitamins and minerals. Pumpkin seeds are potent sources of choline, magnesium and folate. Sunflower seeds are high in vitamins B1 and B6, folate, magnesium, copper, choline, betaine, and selenium. Sesame seeds are great sources of choline, thiamin, niacin, folate, copper, zinc, magnesium, and manganese.
Curcumin, a key phytonutrient in turmeric, is known for its wide range of impressive health benefits. It is also a source of dietary choline, and has been shown to be a methylation adaptogen because of its ability to influence DNMT.
This popular herb contains some folate, but that’s not what makes it a methylation food. Rosmarinic acid, one of the main phytonutrients in rosemary, is considered a methylation adaptogen because of it has been shown to regulate DNMT. Rosmarinic acid is present in both dried and fresh rosemary.
The phytonutrients present in berries, including anthocyanins, cholorogenic acid, ellagic acid and quercetin are epigenetically active, making them potent methylation adaptogens.
Different berries contain different phytonutrient profiles, so it’s best to choose a variety of them, such as black currents, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, goji berries, and blackberries.
Grains can also be an excellent source of magnesium, B vitamins and chromium, which helps regulate blood sugar levels. Some grains, like oats, provide sulfur which can help decrease the depletion of methylation nutrients to support sulfur detoxification. Oats are also an excellent source of fiber.
However many individuals do not tolerate grains. Gluten tends to be problematic for most people so look for "Certified Gluten Free." Whole grains in particular also contain leptin, which some individuals do not tolerate. You can soak your grains before cooking them to improve their digestibility and nutrient bioavailability.
Epigallocatechin gallate, catechins and other flavonols may also benefit methylation activity. Researchers suspect that these phytonutrients may be able to favorably impact tumor suppressor genes via methylation.
The Bottom Line
Methylation is a key pathway by which a healthy diet with methylation foods can influence optimal gene expression, thereby promoting overall health and wellness.
Rather then relying solely on supplements you can spare “methyl donor drain” through appropriate lifestyle interventions
These include a careful dietary prescription that supports methyl donor reserve