Methylation is one of the body’s most important and most common chemical processes, occurring many times a second in every cell and organ of the body. Therefore it is a process that is vital for our health and wellbeing.
In essence, methylation is how the body keeps thousands of neurotransmitters, hormones and other essential biochemicals in balance. It is therefore fundamental to your metabolism and if things aren’t running effectively in this regard, a wide variety of health problems can emerge even though they may look like they have other causes.
This health topic seldom reaches any prominence in the mainstream media even though the process of methylation, and the potentially serious health risks associated with impaired methylation function, is critical to wellbeing.
Heart disease, autoimmune diseases, thyroid dysfunction, hormone and neurotransmitter imbalances, osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue, asthma, psychological issues such as depression and anxiety and even cancer can be related to, or caused by, poor methylation.
Methylation is an amazing cycle that has a significant influence on how we feel physically, mentally and emotionally.
It is clear from the extensive list of health issues shown above that methylation must be a pretty fundamental process. It’s a metabolic process that is essential to each and every cell in your body – even to your DNA. In a nutshell, methylation is a cycle that facilitates many other metabolic cycles in the body.
An easy to understand example would be in the ‘fight or flight’ response. One of the processes that will take place at a time of perceived threat is the production of adrenalin. This would not be possible without methylation, as it is this process that actually manufactures adrenalin. This manufacturing process is reliant on a unit of organic compounds made of 3 hydrogen atoms bonded to a carbon atom (CH3). This is known as a methyl group. The adrenalin is made when one of these groups is added to a noradrenalin compound.
This one example shows how important this cycle is both when there is a ‘real’ threat to our safety and, as in the case of anxiety disorders, when the threat is perceived rather than actual.
To measure whether our methylation processes are healthy or not, we need to understand the role of homocysteine. Homocysteine is a naturally occurring amino acid that is produced as part of the methylation cycle and is, therefore, an important indicator of your methylation status, i.e. how efficiently you are methylating. If homocysteine is too high you are not methylating effectively. It is also important to understand that Homeocysteine can become too abundant when vitamin deficiencies are present and these are often related to poor diet and lifestyle choices, so it is also clear that a synergistic/holistic approach to health must be at the forefront of any treatment strategy.
The methylation cycle
The methylation cycle has four key steps that change homocysteine into methionine and then methionine into SAMe (S-AdenosylMethionine), and then SAMe into SAH (S-AdenosylHomocysteine), or back to homocysteine… which needs a methyl donor so that it can start the process again!
The enzymes that facilitate this metabolic process need co-factors in the form of active B vitamins (B6, B12 and folic acid). B12 deficiency, especially in older adults, is known to be prevalent and therefore undermine this cycle.
An important methyl donor is betaine, also called trimethylglcycine (TMG) and this is a compound that can be supplemented. Many people may be deficient in betaine for a variety of reason including: metal toxicity, stress or inflammation pointing to the need to be aware of and deal with the toxic load that modern life inevitably brings – see: The Secret to Health is the Removal of Waste.
As the TMG donates in the methylation cycle it becomes Dimethylglycine (DMG).
DMG is an amino acid that can help with chronic fatigue, neurological function, liver function, inflammatory conditions, as well as respiratory disorders and improving the body’s use of oxygen. It can also support the normalisation of blood pressure and blood glucose and help to lower cholesterol – see: Amino Acids – the Unsung Heroes.
Chronic fatigue, blood glucose levels and issues around the use of oxygen can all be associated with poor mood, as in fact can any challenging physical condition and so it is clear that taking the necessary steps to ensure that our methylation processes are supported will assist us with regard to a variety of mental health issues as well.
It is important to note however, that DMG, whilst available as a supplement is part of a metabolic process and it’s better to support the process rather than intervene and only supplement directly – this is an important tenet of a more holistic or synergistic approach to supporting health and wellbeing.
Hormone health and methylation
Dr Alyssa Burns-Hill, PhD, is an international Hormone Health Specialist who explains why methylation is so important for women and health issues related to female hormones. Let’s see what she has to say…
PMS and menopause.
PMS is a very common monthly issue that can manifest as mood swings, tender breasts, bloating, heavy bleeding and sugar cravings (caused by higher oestrogen levels giving an insulin surge that causes blood sugar to drop – which is why women get the chocolate munchies before their period). PMS is due to oestrogen dominance, which can be due to a failure to ovulate which in turn leads an increase in progesterone in order to bring about balance. It can also be due to the fact that the liver isn’t detoxifying oestrogen very effectively.
Methylation capability is an essential part of Phase II liver detoxification of oestrogens and in particular with regard to whether the oestrogen is broken down into softer, safer oestrogens or harsher and potentially more damaging oestrogen metabolites. Essentially, good methylation in oestrogen metabolism will support the production of 2-methoxyestrogens, which may provide protective effects from harsher oestrogen metabolites.
This is an important process that can go a long way to making each monthly cycle more comfortable and less draining, as well as providing a protective element regarding the risk of breast cancer.
Menopause is another stage of a woman’s life that can cause many more changes than women expect – it’s not all hot flushes and night sweats! Menopause can include problems with sleeping, feelings of anxiety and depression as well as fatigue. People often think that menopause is purely about the drop in oestrogen – it’s not. The vast majority of women that I see with their test results have adequate oestrogen, but they lack progesterone. Better hormone balance here can make a big difference as it will potentiate oestrogen, which is beneficial to methylation.
Through the ageing process, a history of poor diet and lifestyle choices as well as life stress, a woman’s methylation capacity may be compromised, also increasing risk factors for other age-related diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.
Dr. Burns-Hill’s recommendations are:
• Honestly evaluate your diet and other lifestyle factors such as: smoking, alcohol consumption, the intake of stimulants such as tea and coffee and other caffeine containing drinks as well as recreational drugs.
• Increase vegetable consumption
• Look at supplementing your diet with B vitamins and betaine to support your methylation cycle (spinach, wheat bran, wheat germ and beetroot are examples of good dietary sources of betaine).
• Reduce stress if you can. This can be a difficult one as we all try to cram so much into our day. Perhaps you need to start with making sure that you turn off your mobile phone at a certain point in the evening until 8 am next morning to give yourself, and your loved ones, a break? See: The Need to Slow Down.
• You can even explore getting your homocysteine level checked as it is a good reference point as to whether you are methylating effectively.
As you can see, methylation is quietly orchestrating so many of the critical processes in our bodies and therefore, if we are challenged by health problems that don’t seem to have a clear or obvious explanation, it might well be a good place to start looking. In addition to the recommendations above, we would add:
a) Make sure you’re drinking copious amounts of water throughout the day
b) Eat a broad and diverse diet. The more colour in your diet the better
c) Minimize processed foods – natural and fresh foods are best
d) Increase your exercise. So many health problems are caused by a sedentary lifestyle
e) Pursue pleasurable activities. Happiness is critical to our health and wellbeing
f) introspective practices such as meditation, relaxation and mindfulness help balance the mind-body system
We have adopted a habit of relying on someone else to take care of our health needs, usually our doctors or other health specialists, and whilst of course they have a very important role to play in supporting our health, hopefully our articles/resources are persuading you that personal responsibility is equally if not more important.
There are so many things we can do for ourselves to create the kind of environments within our bodies that promote health. Our bodies are always working with us, are always geared towards safe-guarding our healthy functioning.
Why not be a team with your body, it is a truly amazing organism that will deliver miracles if you offer up the support it needs.
Here is a beautiful journey, Dearest Body, to help you to persuade your body that you are its greatest ally.