Methylation: Why It Matters For Your Immunity, Inflammation & More

Written by Michelle Corey, FMP

Methylation is the latest buzzword in the health industry, and for good reason. It's a biochemical process involved in almost all of your body's functions.

What is methylation? Without getting too technical, methylation is the addition of a single carbon and three hydrogen atoms (called a methyl group) to another molecule. The removal of a methyl group is called demethylation. Think of billions of little on/off switches inside your body that control everything from your stress response and how your body makes energy from food, to your brain chemistry. That's methylation and demethylation.

Methyl groups control:

  • The stress (fight-or-flight) response
  • The production and recycling of glutathione — the body's master antioxidant
  • The inflammation response
  • Genetic expression and the repair of DNA
  • Neurotransmitters and the balancing of brain chemistry
  • Energy production
  • The repair of cells damaged by free radicals
  • The immune response, controlling T-cell production, fighting infections and viruses and regulating the immune response

If you have a shortage of methyl groups, or your methylation cycle is interrupted, any or all of these processes can become compromised, and you could get sick. Research has linked impaired methylation with autoimmune conditions.

Methylation and glutathione. Improving methylation is important for everyone, but it may be especially important if you have an autoimmune condition. One of the reasons is the role of methylation in the production and recycling of glutathione, the body's master antioxidant and master "splinter" remover. Glutathione directly neutralizes free radicals, reduces inflammation and assists in the role of other antioxidants like vitamin C, E and lipoic acid.

In a perfect world, your body makes its own glutathione from the amino acids cysteine, glycine and glutamine, then recycles it via methylation using methyl donors like vitamin B12, folate, betaine and other nutrients. Under normal conditions, your body makes and recycles enough glutathione. However, if part of the methylation cycle is disrupted, you may get very sick.

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How To Improve Methylation

Below are a few all-natural ways that may improve your methylation pathways, that I recommend as a integrative medicine practitioner:

1. Eat plenty of greens.

Eating dark leafy green veggies daily provides you with natural folate (a methyl donor), necessary for proper methylation. Make sure to get a minimum of two cups of these foods daily.

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2. Get B vitamins and folate.

B vitamins are methyl donors, especially folate, B6, B12 and riboflavin. Sources of B vitamins include fish, eggs, dark leafy greens, asparagus, almonds, sunflower seeds and walnuts.

3. Support methylation with supplements.

Make sure you get adequate amounts of magnesium and zinc, which can support methylation.

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4. Take probiotics.

Remember, the good bugs help produce and absorb B vitamins and folate.

5. Reduce alcohol and smoking.

These substances burden your liver and use up methyl groups.

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How To Boost Your Glutathione

In addition to making sure your methylation is operating at full capacity, you can increase your glutathione levels with the following strategies:

1. Eat healthy proteins.

Eating foods that are high in the glutathione precursors — cysteine, glycine, and glutamate — can help boost your glutathione. Sources of these important amino acids include organic omega-3 enriched eggs, safe fish and organic lean meats.

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2. Eat sulfurous foods.

Sulfur is a key component of glutathione, so eating enough sulfur-containing foods is great. Sources include garlic, onions and cruciferous vegetables like kale, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, watercress and bok choy.

3. Take protein powder.

Undenatured whey protein powder boosts glutathione levels by converting cysteine into glutathione. If you're allergic to whey (which comes from dairy), try a hypoallergenic rice protein powder. Take one or two scoops of protein powder per day in water, juice or smoothie.

4. Optimize your antioxidants.

Vitamins C, D and E can all encourage higher glutathione levels.

5. Move your body.

Besides reducing stress and depression, exercise also boosts your glutathione levels.

6. Get enough sleep.

Studies show that lack of sleep can deplete glutathione. Make sure you get between 7 and 10 hours of sleep nightly.

7. Spice it up.

Curcumin can raise glutathione levels in the liver—one more good reason to use this anti-inflammatory spice. Or, you can take a curcumin supplement.

Many times, just following guidelines like these can offer some relief from your autoimmune condition and keep you healthy and vibrant for life. But, when doing everything "right" is still not enough to improve your autoimmune symptoms, it makes sense to consult a qualified practitioner who can order functional testing and guide you through a treatment process.

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