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Demystifying Methylation: Patterns, Processes and the Pivotal Role of B vitamins.

Methylation is a complex, often poorly understood subject—but it’s essential for overall wellness, vitality and disease prevention. As a central player in regulating gene expression and cellular function, methylation impacts a wide variety of biological processes, and imbalances are implicated in a range of disorders and health conditions. For integrative and functional medicine practitioners, evaluating methylation capacity offers clues into individual patterns and disease risks, to direct and inform a personalized approach. Here’s what you need to know about the mechanisms of methylation, factors and influences, and strategies for optimizing the process.

Methylation 101: mechanisms and modulating influences.

Methylation refers to a simple but fundamental biochemical process in which a methyl group is added to a molecule, including proteins, small molecules, RNA and DNA. DNA methylation, required for cell division, embryonic development and tissue differentiation, affects gene expression and activity without changing the DNA sequence. The methylation process plays a pivotal role in cellular energy production and metabolism, immune cell production, neurotransmitter synthesis, hepatic detoxification, hormone biosynthesis and metabolism, peripheral nerve myelination and numerous other key biological functions and systems. 1, 2

“Methylation is critical for internal regulatory mechanisms, including epigenetic modifications and imprinting, and contributes to many essential bodily activities,” says Neil Edward Levin, CCN, DANLA, co-founder and former officer of the American Nutrition Association. “While approximately 70 percent of the population has normal methylation, about 22 percent have undermethylation and 8 percent have over-methylation.”

Both under- and over-methylation can lead to serious health consequences: abnormal methylation is implicated in the development of cancer and the formation and progression of tumors, as well as cardiovascular disease, autoimmune conditions, diabetes, osteoporosis and osteoarthritis, and neurological disorders including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Aberrations in methylation patterns are also linked with disruptions in nervous system activity, and cellular energy production, along with an increased risk of anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

A spectrum of factors, ranging from genetic variations to nutritional influences, diminish methylation capacity. Some of the most prominent.

  • Studies point to a strong genetic component, and certain variations directly impact methylation. The most widely recognized of these: methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) gene polymorphisms are associated with altered MTHFR enzyme activity and decreased methylation capacity. The MTHFR enzyme plays a crucial role in converting homocysteine to methionine, a precursor for S-adenosylmethionine (SAM), the primary methyl donor involved in numerous methylation reactions throughout the body. MTHFR variants are linked with increased homocysteine levels and reduced levels of folate and other vitamins, as well as a heightened risk for depression, insomnia, fertility issues, thyroid disorders and other conditions. While MTHFR is the most familiar, a number of other variants are known to affect methylation. 9, 10, 11
  • Environmental toxins, chemicals and heavy metals interfere with methylation processes. Several studies have established a connection between DNA methylation and heavy metals, including nickel, cadmium, lead and particularly arsenic. Air pollution and bisphenol A (BPA) are associated with decreased DNA methylation, and even low-level exposure to benzene can impair methylation. Some medications, like cholestyramine, oral contraceptives, antibiotics and dental nitrous oxide, also interfere with methylation. 12, 13, 14
  • Lifestyle factors such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, stress and insufficient sleep promote alterations in methylation patterns and are linked with increased risk of disease. A sedentary lifestyle negatively impacts methylation, while specific types of exercise trigger positive changes. Hormonal shifts during pregnancy and menopause affect methylation processes, and methylation efficiency declines with aging. 15, 16
  • Nutrient deficiencies are a common cause of impaired methylation. B vitamins, especially B12 and folate, are essential for proper methylation, and an array of additional nutrients—including methionine, cysteine, taurine, magnesium, zinc and omega-3 fats—support methylation processes. A low-quality diet lacking in nutrients, high intake of fat and other dietary factors are known to alter methylation. Poor diet also disrupts gut health, diminishing absorption of nutrients involved in methylation. The gut microbiome indirectly influences methylation as well, both by modulating the metabolism of nutrients and through the production of metabolites that impact methylation patterns. 17, 18, 19, 20, 21

“Undermethylation is associated with numerous problems, including negative mood, controlling behavior (antisocial tendencies, aggressiveness, willfulness, opposition to authority, competitiveness), tendency toward seasonal allergen reactions with excess tears and/or saliva, high libido and loss of normal appetite,” says Levin. “Poor methylation can result in premature aging of cells and genes and elevated serum homocysteine, which is known to contribute to a variety of health conditions.”


Methylation: the pivotal role of B vitamins.

While methylation is a complex process requiring an array of nutrients, B vitamins occupy an especially prominent role. Folate, vitamins B2, B6 and B12, and trimethylglycine (TMG, also known as betaine) act as co-factors in the methylation process and are critical for the synthesis of SAM, the primary methyl donor involved in DNA and other methylation reactions. Vitamin B12 participates in the conversion of homocysteine to methionine as a co-factor for the enzyme methionine synthase, and deficiencies can lead to elevated homocysteine levels and disruptions in methylation processes. Vitamin B6 aids in the conversion of homocysteine to cysteine, contributing to the regulation of homocysteine levels and influencing the availability of methyl groups. Folate serves as a methyl donor in the synthesis of methionine, the precursor for SAM, is necessary for DNA synthesis, gene expression regulation and other methylation-dependent processes.

A targeted personalized intervention should begin with comprehensive testing to identify genetic variations that impact methylation capacity and assess nutritional deficiencies. In addition to environmental and lifestyle modifications, and dietary strategies aimed at restoring gut health and improving nutrition, a tailored supplement approach designed to correct imbalances helps maintain optimal methylation patterns.

Especially important: a carefully formulated B vitamin supplement with folic acid and vitamins B12, B6 and B2 provides nutrients directly involved in the methylation cycle. Methylated B vitamins in their bioavailable forms are preferred for patients with reduced methylation capacity or genetic variations that affect the conversion of B vitamins to their active forms. Because B vitamins work synergistically in methylation processes, and deficiencies in multiple B vitamins often occur together, a combination of methylated B vitamins can target deficiencies, supports different aspects of methylation and allows a comprehensive source of active methyl donors. Along with B vitamins in their activated co‐enzyme states, TMG serves as a methyl donor, providing methyl groups and participating in the conversion of homocysteine to methionine, a critical step in the methylation cycle.

Combination formulas of methylated B vitamins also minimize the risk of over-methylation, a state marked by excessive levels of methylation which can disrupt normal gene expression patterns, leading to heightened suppression of gene activity and reduced expression of certain genes necessary for normal cellular function. Methylation is a tightly regulated process, and an imbalance in methylation patterns can have detrimental effects. Over-methylation is implicated in various diseases, including cardiovascular disease, autism spectrum disorders, autoimmune conditions and some types of cancer. Research also suggests excessive methylation impacts neurotransmitter balance and affects mood regulation, and studies link over-methylation with mood and mental health issues, like anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“Over-methylation is typically caused by SNPs, genetic mutations, though it can also be caused by dietary deficiencies of arginine or glycine,” says Levin. “People who have too much methylation tend to be more nervous and scared, have difficulty sleeping, have low libido, lack seasonal allergies, have dry eyes and mouth, are not competitive and do not react well to SSRIs or antihistamines. These individuals should not take methylation support supplements.”



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