Methylation is confusing, to say the least. With global implications that affect just about every cell, organ, and system in the body, there's no doubt that this biochemical process is important—but how can we tell if our methylation cycle is operating as it should?
It turns out that even folks with an MTHFR gene variant who are more prone to methylation challenges, aka inefficiencies, can go decades (or even a lifetime) without realizing they have an MTHFR enzyme that operates suboptimally.
Functional medicine doctor Jill Carnahan, M.D., IFMCP, says that folks with MTHFR gene variants can have a 30% to 60% reduction in their MTHFR enzyme function and not notice because the signs are so subtle and our bodies are so resilient.
"We can go a lot of years and not notice a lot of effects or issues. We might notice, 'Oh, I have trouble with this,' or 'I feel down sometimes'—but who doesn't, right? The signs are vague enough because they affect so many systems that it would be hard to say [suboptimal methylation] is the one cause—it's usually multifactorial," Carnahan explains.
While it can be tough to pin down evidence that your methylation isn't optimized, there are a few key factors that indicate your methylation cycle needs a little TLC. If you're experiencing a handful of these signs, it could be time to discuss methylation status with your health care provider.
Your energy feels low.
Methylation affects energy metabolism in a big way—largely due to the key role B vitamins play in the methylation cycle. These essential nutrients act as coenzymes in energy metabolism1, so not getting enough of them can affect healthy methylation and overall energy levels.*
Methylation is just one of many root concerns that lower energy levels could stem from. That said, if your energy is lower than you'd like (or expect) it to be after implementing actions to help it improve—such as exercising, optimizing your sleep, and eating a well-balanced diet—subpar methylation and/or an MTHFR genetic variant could be to blame.
You're experiencing mood or sleep challenges.
"If you're more prone to mood or sleep challenges, that absolutely would be a reason to look into this pathway," says Carnahan. This is thanks to those oh-so-important B vitamins and their vital role in neurotransmitter production—such as serotonin and oxytocin, aka the "happy" and "love" hormones.
If you're experiencing changes in your mood or ability to get deep, restful sleep, subpar methylation may be the culprit.
Your homocysteine levels are elevated.
High homocysteine levels are a telltale sign of subpar methylation and make a strong case for genetic influence. This biomarker indicates that homocysteine is getting "stuck" in the methylation cycle due to a shortage of active folate (5-MTHF)—something that folks with an MTHFR gene variant struggle to produce adequate amounts of.
Left unchecked, suboptimal homocysteine levels can lead to cardiovascular implications down the road. If you're concerned with your homocysteine levels, be sure to schedule an appointment with your health care provider to discuss how to support your methylation cycle via optimizing homocysteine status.
Your B vitamin levels are subpar.
If you haven't picked up on it by now, B vitamins are vital to a healthy methylation cycle.* They play a role in everything from cognitive function and energy balance to mood and stress management.*
For methylation support and whole-body health, sufficient levels of all eight B vitamins is key, and make sure they are delivered in their most bioactive forms (for example, methylated folate, aka 5-MTHF, for folic acid).* Like all essential nutrients, it's important to check your B vitamin levels every so often to ensure you're getting enough.
You're experiencing protein-related concerns.
Considering proteins are the building blocks of life (thank you, eighth-grade science class!), any protein-related challenges can affect a myriad of systems and functions—including muscle mass or strength, collagen levels, hormone balance, and antibody levels (hello, immune resilience).
When our protein levels are not optimally regulated, it creates a need for additional methyl donors (i.e., the compounds involved in methylation). Physician Karyn Shanks, M.D., explains that restoring these physiological disparities can help provide adequate methyl donors and restore balance in the body.
Your detoxification pathways aren't optimized.
Methylation greatly affects the body's natural detox pathways, so an abundance of stressors like toxins in the body may mean your methylation needs some TLC. Carnahan explains that sensitivity to chemicals, mold, or other modern toxins may indicate that your detoxification system is taxed (due to suboptimal methylation or a number of other reasons).
Whether methylation is to blame for your body's struggle to effectively remove toxins or not, supporting your detox pathways is always a good idea for whole-body health and overall well-being.
What does healthy methylation look like?
We've seen all the signs that methylation might not be top-notch, but what does healthy methylation look like?
According to Shanks: "Bliss. No, really. If methylation is dialed in, so is everything else."
The bottom line.
There you have it—subpar methylation can manifest in many ways and affect a number of physiological systems, and healthy methylation is worth striving for to promote overall health and well-being.
If you're concerned that your methylation isn't as optimized as it could be, consider talking to your health care provider about interventions to promote a healthy methylation cycle—such as a high-quality, targeted supplement that is gene-focused and delivers bioactive B vitamins like mbg's methylation support+.*
Morgan Chamberlain is a supplement editor at mindbodygreen. She graduated from Syracuse University with a Bachelor of Science degree in magazine journalism and a minor in nutrition. Chamberlain believes in taking small steps to improve your well-being—whether that means eating more plant-based foods, checking in with a therapist weekly, or spending quality time with your closest friends. When she isn’t typing away furiously at her keyboard, you can find her cooking in the kitchen, hanging outside, or doing a vinyasa flow.