At this point, you might be thinking, “I don’t have a diagnosis of inhibited methylation such as an MTHFR variant. So, this scenario doesn’t apply to me.” Allow us to challenge this thinking by pointing out that many doctors agree that, for a mixture of reasons—some of which are genetic, while others are environmental—that between 40 to 60 percent of the population doesn’t methylate properly. Recall the example already given of impeded methylation of homocysteine potentially contributing to such issues as heart disease, stroke, dementia, hypertension, vascular issues, hypothyroidism, diabetes, and even conditions as seemingly ordinary as high cholesterol. For this reason, keep an open mind as you take in the information in the upcoming pages. As we’ll delve into momentarily, a diagnosis of a named condition such as MTHFR isn’t not the only culprit which may mean that the body doesn’t methylate properly. Perhaps a missing link in your search for wellness is about to be revealed.
Furthermore, proper/improper methylation has the potential to alter how our bodies function all the way down to the cellular-genetic level. Since our genes are also proteins, methylation has the potential to alter gene expression: meaning genes can literally be switched on or off depending on how the process is working in an individual’s body. This has the power to steer health in a positive or negative direction, which is why knowledge regarding whether your body is successfully completing this process is critical to good health.
Before Latching On to A Treatment Plan
For many, a quick research on improve methylation yields myriad suggestions to supplement with B-complex vitamins, asserting these supplements as though they were a “one size fits all” answer to such issues. Others often endorse folate or methylfolate. However, before readers race to purchase these supplements, they should be aware that there could be a few problems with this approach. First, quality and absorbability of such products is vital: if you have an obstacle with methylation, it may be even harder for you to absorb certain supplements than it is for most other people. Thus, high-quality supplements are necessary. Additionally, there are different types of MTHFR mutations/variants and other methylation impediments, and these issues aren’t all the same. It may surprise you to learn this, but there are people who don’t methylate properly who likewise do not have a condition—genetic or otherwise—that doctors might “flag” as responsible for their methylation struggles. What we mean is that some who have a methylation issue battle with symptoms derived from an ambiguous source, but repeatedly may be told by physicians that they’re unable to find a diagnosable problem. (These same people may even test negative for all MTHFR variants). This is because the matter is extremely complex and can be derived not only from genetic factors (which may be diagnosable), but from environmental ones as well (which often do not show up on a diagnostic test of any kind).
To elaborate, the human genome contains between four to five million SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms). These can each cause unique variations in an individual’s base genetic makeup. They contribute to all of the various elements which make each of us unique in every way, and furthermore, “act as biological markers, helping scientists locate genes that are associated with disease. When SNPs occur within a gene or in a regulatory region near a gene, they may play a more direct role in disease by affecting the gene’s function.”[i] But the issue of methylation goes beyond our genetics—and is thus not limited by them (thankfully!). A person’s ability to methylate, as staged in part by our genetic pattern at birth, is subsequently influenced by literally millions of decisions we make throughout our lives. This involves every exposure we allow our bodies to withstand over the course of our existence, from pollutants and food ingredients to topical chemical exposure, and can even include some vaccines.
With this in mind, it goes without saying that it’s impossible (nor is it reasonable for us to expect) for a medical professional to have both the foreknowledge of the intricacies of each patient’s genetic patterns, along with the ability to calculate and comprehend the consequences of each of our decisions across our lifetimes and how each of these factors intertwines to impact our health. Even the best professionals find themselves unable to provide unlimited expertise regarding such vast and unknowable circumstances and influencing factors. The mere fact that methylation can be impacted over decades of our lives via the choices that we make, by genetic variations inherited from our parents, or both, means that the roots of methylation problems can be ambiguous to trace. What we’re saying is that it isn’t as simple as “getting tested” for a named condition such as MTHFR, and then working purely from a genetic standpoint to resolve. Likewise, doing a quick Google search and then adding touted supplements will likely not manifest a simple answer to the problem. As stated previously, those who test negative for such conditions may still have impeded methylation due to blocked pathways (more on pathways in a bit) in their system as a result of poor diet, pollutant or chemical exposure, or other life decisions that have compromised the body’s ability to methylate.
There Is Good News
Before continuing, we want to take a moment to reemphasize how important all the principles in this book are for a healthy lifestyle that follows natural protocol. By embracing a way of life based on these methods, we provide our bodies with many of the best tools available for improved methylation. Unfortunately, sometimes the search to “overcome MTHFR” or “repair a methylation dysfunction” becomes the entire focus of the journey, and the fixation is skewed from seeking out the healthiest lifestyle possible to one of fighting a battle against genetics. This is a discouraging war, and should be avoided by committing to offer our bodies every opportunity to thrive naturally.
Since methylation is a highly personalized issue, many times another individual’s claim of having found the “magic, silver bullet” that effectively treated his or her MTHFR/methylation issue will result in the well-meaning comrade sharing their suggestions of treatment and tales of victory that do not render the same results for another person This can become a spiral of defeat for the individual still searching for his or her optimum treatment blend, and this is a distraction from the real journey we should be on: that of arming our body with the best tools it needs to thrive, and then allowing it time to heal. The habits suggested throughout this book—especially for the individual with methylation difficulty—will help your body adapt to a lifestyle in which is it able to detox safely and organically, thus facilitating the eventuality of improved methylation and function on many levels.
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We have mentioned pathways before, and at this point the reader may be wondering what is meant by this. Pathways are the totality of the body’s various types of internal communication systems. They include (but aren’t limited to) the metabolic, neurological, endocrine, and nervous systems. “These systems regulate body processes through chemical and electrical signals that pass between cells. The pathways for this communication are different for each system.”[ii] For example, “the nervous and endocrine systems are two forms of communication system in the human body that integrate, coordinate and respond to sensory information which is received by the human body from its surroundings”[iii] (i.e. diet, stressors, lifestyle, pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals, parasites, environmental, etc.). This means that when these communications are inhibited, vital body functions such as the intake and absorption of nutrients, hormone production, ability to sleep, energy production, and the ability to methylate properly become dysfunctional. Many Americans, whether they know it or not, face the types of toxins mentioned previously that block or derange their pathways (which should be open).
Because improper methylation can result in the body’s inability to intake nutrients, the issue is often initially detected via nutritional deficiency. Understandably, the response is usually to add the deprived nutrient to the system through supplementation. Many individuals who have been diagnosed with MTHFR or other methylating disorder immediately begin a myriad of supplementation to try to improve methylation. But this can prove to have devastating side effects, because it can result in an individual’s already-strained metabolic pathways becoming overloaded and thus locked. What this means is that adding supplementation to a deficiency is not always the answer. Until the issue of impeded pathways is addressed, taking supplements will likely only exacerbate the problem. In this type of situation, the body will “clog” with these elements, putting undue strain on liver and kidneys, while the individual simultaneously remains unable to absorb them at all.
I (Joe) experienced this when I first learned that I had two genetic Methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) variations/mutations (heterozygous and homeozygus, 677T and A1298C) and began taking methyl-B complexes, because further testing confirmed I had become enormously vitamin B deficient. Initially I felt relief, but then as these substances mounted in my body unabsorbed, my system became so completely overloaded that I began to feel terribly sick, as though I had toxins all throughout my body despite my carefully regimented organic diet. And this was the case: the over-supplementation had stacked in my system, because my body could not methylate (break down, absorb, use, and store these nutrients) resulting in a stockpile of partially-methylated nutrients which became a burden of additional waste on my body. This created neurotoxins, which brought about feelings of illness, chills, and even brain fog that seemed impossible to work through. At a later time, I had a similar issue regarding iron: I was deficient (borderline anemic), and yet simultaneously, my blood held large stores of this micronutrient (in the form of ferritin), seemingly unabsorbable (more on this in just a bit).
This is where the situation with treating MTHFR or other methylation issues becomes complicated. There are many great natural healthcare practitioners out there who are able to help, but there is, unfortunately, no “cookie cutter” treatment which is proven to alleviate issues for everybody, or for every case. Because the MTHFR variant occurs within the genetic code, management of this condition becomes highly personalized to each individual. Additionally, as stated, many will be quick to subscribe to a wide regimen of supplementation in effort to balance nutrients which appear deficient. Allow me to say that for an individual with a methylation imbalance, this can be a serious mistake before peripheral issues, such as pathways, have been addressed.
Cofactors, Precursors, and Methyl Mountain
When I first discovered I had MTHFR variants, I aggressively began to purchase supplements and follow protocols of choline, methyl folate, glutathione, vitamins A and E, and fish oil—and, for a time, I felt amazing. After years of struggling with illness, imagine my thrill at getting some relief! I felt better than I had in years; it was as though I had a new lease on life. This “high,” which I later called “methyl mountain,” lasted for a few months. Then, to my unspeakable dismay, my symptoms returned. At the time, I was crushed: I was disappointed that the discomfort had reemerged, afraid that it had returned to stay, and unsure of what I had done wrong since, I had been so rigid about my new wellness routine that had previously been working.
However, I soon learned that the intricacies of nutrient intake can be extremely complicated for an individual facing methylation challenges. Likewise, many people fail to realize that nutrients have cofactors and precursors that are required in order to allow absorption to successfully take place. Bear with me while I attempt to explain this.
You may have heard it said that calcium cannot be absorbed unless a person takes it along with vitamin D. In fact, many vitamin companies have capitalized on this commonly known fact by packaging and advertising the two together for purposes of better absorption. This is because vitamin D facilitates the gut’s ability to intake calcium, after which it is vitamin K which actually helps direct the calcium to the bones. Many people regard nutrients as separate, stand-alone entities that move through the body independently and do their job, but this is mistaken. Each essential element belongs to a chain-link of necessary components the body needs in succession in order to thrive. Likewise, each has precursors and cofactors that facilitate their impact upon the body.
As in my aforementioned case regarding coexistent ferritin and anemia, because I had stores of excess iron in my body that had been unabsorbed, taking more iron (to help my anemia) would have caused more illness, because my body already had enough in storage (ferritin). It’s not that I didn’t have any; it was that my body was unable to absorb it properly. In my case, chlorophyll and vitamin C, along with exercise and lots of sunshine (vitamin D and oxygenation) would prove far more effective cofactors for helping my body to actually utilize the iron that was already present, pulling it out of storage and into circulation. (Chlorophyll is a green pigment, present in all green plants and in cyanobacteria, responsible for the absorption of light to provide energy for photosynthesis. And interestingly, vitamin C assists in the efficiency of glutathione by up to 30 percent, which is a vital antioxidant that also helps with methylation.) What is needed in such situations is to decipher which cofactor or precursor is needed to get the body to absorb what is already there.
In addition, sometimes we may think we need a certain nutrient, and, after beginning to take it, we find that we feel much better—for a while. Unfortunately, this can be followed by the grandiose letdown when symptoms return (as did following my brief visit to “methyl mountain”). It’s easy in such circumstances to feel extremely defeated, having had a taste of relief that is followed by recurring discomfort. In such cases, it’s likely that when we first initiate supplementation, we have a supply of the right cofactor or precursor in our system, which facilitates absorption of the supplement. However, this element will likely deplete as it aids in the absorption of the known, culprit deficiency. As we continue taking this essential, we are unaware that intake has been aided by another component until the second, assisting essential similarly becomes depleted. Then, as a result of lack of appropriate cofactor, the body begins to struggle at intake of the item being supplemented, which allows for the return of initial symptoms. The result, in such situations, is often the discouragement of experiencing diminished success in spite of faithful efforts. I know this feeling all too well, the cruel tease of what was almost obtained, then lost without explanation.
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[i] “What Are Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs)?” U.S. National Library of Medicine Online. 2020. Retrieved April 24, 2020. https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/genomicresearch/snp.
[ii] “Body System Communication.” Victoria State Government: Education and Training. November, 2018. Retrieved April 24, 2020. https://www.education.vic.gov.au/school/teachers/teachingresources/discipline/science/continuum/Pages/bodysysteb.aspx.