What Is Methylation & Why It's Critical To Your Health: A Functional Medicine Expert Explains
In case you didn't know, we're big fans of optimizing cellular health around here. Quite literally the foundation of the human body, trillions of cells are constantly working overtime to make sure you remain healthy and balanced. So when naturopathic doctor and functional medicine expert Kara Fitzgerald, N.D., came on the podcast and wanted to talk about a cellular process called methylation, we were game.
Our conversation, which can be found on the latest episode of the mindbodygreen podcast—may sound incredibly technical, but trust us when we say: Methylation is critical for optimal health. Why? Well, methylation affects virtually every essential process in your body, and an imbalance can be attributed to a number of health concerns (more on that below). Here, we break down the technical—yet important!—process, so you can become even more well versed in cellular health.
What is methylation?
At its core, the methylation cycle is a biochemical process that happens at the cellular level: A methyl group, which is a simple structure of one carbon and three hydrogen molecules, converts an amino acid called methionine into S-Adenosyl methionine (SAM-e). SAM-e is then able to travel around the body and donate methyl groups to a multitude of different compounds—from your DNA and neurotransmitters to supporting metabolism. At the very end of the trip, SAM-e then converts to homocysteine—an amino acid in your blood that makes the powerful antioxidant glutathione.
Scientific jargon aside, the methylation process happens in the body all day, every day, without you even knowing it. "We don't think about inhaling air and what that does biologically," Fitzgerald says. "It's just something we do. Methylation is kind of like that."
Why it's critical for health.
While this process is natural, it does have the potential to go awry: After SAM-e converts to homocysteine, it's recycled back into methionine to start the process all over again. However, if you don't have enough nutrients in your body (namely, B12 and folate) or perhaps there's a defect in any of the enzymes that help the aforementioned recycling process, homocysteine can actually accumulate in your body. High levels of homocysteine, which is something Colleen and I both have personally dealt with, are a risk factor for clotting and heart disease.
Beyond the blood clotting risk associated with high homocysteine, there's a wide range of health concerns linked to methylation imbalances: cardiovascular disease, asthma, Parkinson's disease, even conditions like autism, dementia, and ADHD. "Because it's ubiquitous, it's involved with so many processes in the body," Fitzgerald explains. "It's broad, wide, and deep."
Additionally, when your body isn't methylating properly and creating enough SAM-e, your body cannot produce adequate levels of powerful antioxidants, like glutathione, that can help manage oxidative stress. It then becomes a not-so-pretty cycle: "Oxidative stress will wind down methylation activity, so the mitochondria can get busy to help clean up that oxidative stress," says Fitzgerald. "But if [your oxidative stress] is chronic, your methylation cycle can't keep up, and you'll always have this drain on your antioxidant system."
How can we balance the methylation cycle and keep those cells happy?
The key, according to Fitzgerald, is to start with your food choices and start getting the nutrients and antioxidants you may be missing. By supplying your body with those powerful antioxidants, you can stabilize free radicals that lead to chronic levels of oxidative stress and help manage that chronic cycle mentioned above.
In terms of which foods, Fitzgerald suggests lots of folate-rich nutrients and B12. That includes beets ("they have a remarkably high folate content") and cruciferous veggies ("antioxidant powerhouses"). She also recommends eggs, if you can tolerate them, as they are "methylation superfoods." Additionally, she suggests "a little chicken, clean beef, or beans if you're vegan or vegetarian."
Because methylation is essential to so many aspects of health, it can be difficult to know whether you're methylating properly. To know for sure, Fitzgerald encourages everyone to ask their doctor for a homocysteine and a lipid panel, which are basic blood tests that are typically covered by insurance. In the meantime, ensure you get adequate nutrition, exercise regularly, address any gut issues, and keep those stress levels in check. You know, all the good things we always talk about.
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.