You might see vitamins advertising that they contain methylated Bs and wonder what the heck is methylation? It's a game-changer, worth understanding, and is a big payoff when it comes to getting your money's worth from the vitamins you take!
Let’s Talk About The Methyl
Methylation is a process that occurs in our bodies that is essential for the proper functioning of almost all of our body systems. At the cellular level, it involves adding or taking away a tiny part of a molecule called a methyl group.
A methyl group is a tiny part of a molecule comprising one carbon atom and three hydrogen atoms. When a vitamin is methylated, it means that a methyl group has been added to it. This process is essential because it transforms the vitamin into its active form, which means it can be used by the body immediately. Other compounds, like proteins, enzymes, hormones, etc., can be methylated too. Methylation must occur for all of these, vitamins included, to function optimally and create other substances our bodies need.
Methylated nutrients are also called "methyl donors" because they carry and transfer methyl groups from one compound to another. The whole process is called methylation. It's vital to our health because it affects certain bioactive vitamins, amino acids, neurotransmitters, hormones, red blood cells, DNA, RNA, and antioxidants that, in turn, directly impact cardiovascular, neurological, reproductive health, energy production, detoxification pathways, and more.
These are some more reasons why methylation matters:
- It’s important to metabolize fats, and cellular energy and detoxify toxins and excess cholesterol.
- It’s required to produce neurotransmitters related to mood, including dopamine, serotonin, adrenaline, and noradrenaline.
- It’s tied to stress, detoxification, inflammation response, and energy production.
- It helps repair DNA daily.
- It controls homocysteine, an amino acid produced by the body after it breaks down another amino acid. It's important to keep homocysteine in proper balance because if we have too much, it can damage our blood vessels.
We often refer to the methylation pathway. That’s a bit into the weeds for this discussion, but it's fascinating if you want to know more. But two B vitamins are very important in that methylation pathway (along with other enzymes and nutrients); it's folate and B12 that kick off the methylation process. They must be in their active forms of methylcobalamin and methylfolate. Having enough of these two vitamins ensures you can combat a sluggish folate pathway, MTHFR gene variations, high homocysteine, and other methylation issues. More about these in a minute.
The results can be catastrophic without enough folate and B12 working efficiently in your system or an impaired methylation system. We see birth defects like spina bifida, increased cases of Down's syndrome, and miscarriages. Less than optimal methylation capabilities also contribute to the so-called “diseases of aging.”
Methylation relies heavily on other methyl-donor nutrients, such as B6, choline, riboflavin, and various enzymes. What you eat and the quality of your foods plays the most significant role in supporting methylation, so we’ll also look at foods that help with methyl donations in a minute.
I mentioned an MTHFR gene mutation, we’ll talk more about that too, but it’s important to note that around 30% of the population has this mutation which causes the body to struggle with the methylation process. In these cases, taking an unmethylated vitamin won't be effective and could put you at risk.
What’s important to note here is that MTHFR gene mutations can lead to a variety of health risks and conditions, including:
- Elevated homocysteine levels. High homocysteine levels have been associated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and other vascular problems.
- Nutrient deficiencies: MTHFR mutations affect the body's ability to metabolize folate, which leads to a deficiency of B vitamins, especially B6. This can lead to various symptoms and health issues, including immune system dysfunction, protein metabolism issues, and the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.
- Pregnancy complications: MTHFR mutations can increase pregnancy complications, including recurrent miscarriages, preeclampsia, and neural tube defects, which rely on adequate folate levels.
- Other health conditions can arise with MTHFR mutations, like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and certain types of cancer.
Getting A Step Up With Diet
Many foods are rich in methyl donors to add to your diet. A well-balanced, colorful plate at every meal ensures you get a variety of foods supporting the methylation process. It's why your mom or grandma always said, "Eat the Rainbow." They weren't wrong; it's a quick way to visually check that you're getting a well-round array of what your body needs. Here are some of the top methyl-donor sources of food:
- Dark leafy greens: Kale, spinach, collard greens, mustard greens, escarole, and other leafy greens are rich in magnesium, folate, and other B vitamins.
- Cruciferous veggies: Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, and arugula are excellent sources of folate and sulforaphane and support not only methylation but detoxification as well.
- Beets: Packed with betaine, beets are an excellent methyl donor food.
- Nuts and seeds: Brazil nuts are a super source of methionine, while other excellent to good sources include sesame seeds, roasted soybeans, parmesan cheese, tuna, eggs, and white beans.
- Lentils and chickpeas: These legumes are good sources of folate.
- Fatty fish: Salmon, mackerel, and other fatty fish are rich in vitamin B12.
- Milk and yogurt: These dairy products are rich in cobalamin, a cofactor for methionine synthase.
- Cheese, onions, and rice: These provide pyridoxine, the cofactor for methionine synthase.
- Pasture-raised eggs: Eggs are a good source of methionine, choline, and other B vitamins.
- Sunflower seeds: Sunflower seeds are a good source of choline.
- Asparagus: Asparagus is a good source of folate.
- Mushrooms: Mushrooms are a great source of choline.
- Pasture-raised poultry: Poultry is a good source of methionine.
- Rosemary, sage, and cilantro: These herbs are good sources of folate.
Of course, as best you can, consider buying organic and non-GMO versions of these when you buy your groceries. You might even grow some of these yourself (mushrooms & herbs are easy to grow on the counter). However, even if you can't go that route, incorporating these foods into your diet can help support healthy methylation and overall health.
The Risk of Unbalanced Homocysteine
Homocysteine is an amino acid produced as a result of your body breaking down another amino acid called methionine. A healthy body keeps homocysteine levels low by converting it into useful biochemicals. But a mutation can cause your body's MTHFR proteins to fail to process folate efficiently. As a result, you may have increased homocysteine levels in your blood. Elevated homocysteine levels cause other deficiencies in vitamins B2, B6, B9 (folate), and B12.
Homocysteine levels can be measured through a blood test. In fact, this is something that your annual bloodwork includes and is a reason you should always have a copy of your latest report. If you have elevated levels of homocysteine, irritation, and damage can occur to your blood vessels leading to arterial damage and blood clots in your blood vessels. A normal level of homocysteine in the blood is less than 15 micromoles per liter (mcmol/L) of blood. Higher levels of homocysteine are split into three main categories: moderate, intermediate, and severe.
Many factors contribute to high homocysteine levels. You may develop hyperhomocysteinemia if you have a folate or B vitamin deficiency. Other risk factors include low thyroid hormone levels, psoriasis, kidney disease, certain medications, and genetics. If your numbers are high in your latest bloodwork, be sure to address it with your doctor. But you can also take this as a warning sign from your body that you need to find vitamins that include methylated B vitamins since you aren’t breaking them down properly. You can also increase your consumption of methyl-donor foods.
MTHFR Is Not A Curse Word
MTHFR stands for methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase, a gene that provides instructions for making the MTHFR enzyme that breaks down homocysteine. The MTHFR enzyme plays a role in processing amino acids and converting folate to 5-methyltetrahydrofolate. If you have a genetic mutation in the MTHFR gene, you may have high levels of homocysteine in your blood and low levels of folate and other vitamins.
As I mentioned earlier, the MTHFR mutation affects approximately 30% of the population worldwide. The biggest impact is handicapping your body's ability to make the usable forms of B12 (methylcobalamin) and folate (methylfolate) needed to make the master antioxidant that protects our cells called glutathione. Glutathione is a tripeptide made of cysteine, glycine, and glutamic acid. If B12 and folate are impaired, you'll make 20-70% less glutathione. Without proper levels of glutathione, your body also can't make DNA, and sperm cells, clean out your liver properly, and support your immune system. In a healthy body, glutathione production naturally decreases with age but toss in an MTHFR mutation, and you can really feel like you're falling apart.
What are your first warning signs you might have an MTHFR deficiency or gene mutation? Here are some of the symptoms:
- Increased levels of homocysteine in your blood work
- Fatigue and brain fog
- Depression, anxiety, and ADD/ADHD
- Chronic inflammation, allergies, eczema, asthma, hives
- An inability to clear out toxins in your blood, estrogen dominance, multiple chemical sensitivity, and chronic fatigue syndrome
- Feelings of weakness, shortness of breath, dizziness, and an irregular heartbeat.
The most effective way to restore a deficiency, compensate for an MTFHR mutation, and ensure you have healthy levels of B vitamins in your body is by supplementing with a methylated multivitamin. This guarantees you’ll have the bioactive forms of folate and B12 we've discussed, which are more effective than synthetic folic acid and cyanocobalamin.
Having an MTHFR variant isn't a death sentence and often doesn't require medical treatment. The first course of action is to take a methylated vitamin B supplement. Taking a high-quality methylated multivitamin also means that whether or not you have MTHFR issues, the nutrients you’re taking will be instantly available to your body because there’s no breakdown needed.
To determine if you have the MTHFR mutation, you can take a blood test or a cheek swab sample through your healthcare provider or a simple online testing lab. A more expensive genetic test looks for over- or under-producing homocysteine levels. It determines if you have one, two, or multiple MTHFR gene mutations. But the less expensive MTHFR gene test typically covered by insurance is a homocysteine test.
A Better Way To Take Your Bs
People often come to me with bags of supplements, spill them across the table, and ask me in despair, "Which one should I be taking?" I get it. I've been there myself! It doesn't help when you have a physician who rolls their eyes at you and says, "Take all you want; you'll just have expensive pee." You should start to feel a difference in 14 days with a good vitamin. So what makes for a "good vitamin"? Let me first explain something about absorption and bioavailability. Your stomach has to break down the nutrients you're taking and has a limited time to do it. Your digestive system is designed to keep things moving, and if a supplement is hard to break down, you won't get much from it because it's moved along too fast. There's also the issue of bioavailability. When a nutrient is absorbed, can your body put it to work quickly? Or will it hit your bloodstream as a blob that isn't very useful and just gets filtered out unused?
If you take your vitamins as tablets, you only get about 20% of what you paid for because they are hard for your stomach to break down. This is doubly true of minerals; some are about like swallowing a rock. Many years back, the supplement industry revolutionized how vitamins are taken with the creation of the gel cap. These were easier to swallow, didn't need binders to hold them together, and had a higher absorption and bioavailability rate. Sadly, they both used fillers to make you feel like you were visibly getting more for your money even though, at most, you were getting about 50% of your investment back.
Then came liquid vitamins. This totally was a game changer in absorption and bioavailability. You absorb about 90% of the nutrients in a liquid vitamin, and a properly created one will have an equal level of bioavailability. I was really excited to clean out my bins of supplements and reveal my bathroom counter again when I found Health Direct’s Nature's Optimal Nutrition. Many of the premium supplements I'd recommended for years were already in the formula; it's a liquid with a host of minerals, herbs, spices, and superfoods that were far better in a single formula than anything I'd seen before. I always remind people that you don't want to take vitamins on an empty stomach, and having a little fat's a good idea when you do. But when it comes to getting everything in a single serving – Nature's Optimal Nutrition couldn't be easier. For my coaching clients with MTFHR issues, the methylated Bs were exactly what I would recommend and at levels that produce results. There is no better way, in my opinion, to safeguard your health, whether you have the MTHFR gene mutation, the enzyme deficiency, or no problem at all.
There's only one warning I give people when I start them on Nature's Optimal Nutrition – don't freak out. Your pee may be neon-colored, and your energy levels may quickly increase. I think we can live with that!
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
Lisa Moretti is a Certified Health Coach from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition (IIN), the largest nutrition school in the world. She was at the top of her cohort in 2015. She's professionally been involved in the natural health and supplement world since 1981.