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August 21, 2019

Part 1: Methylation and Why It Matters

What Is Methylation? 

The methylation cycle. It’s a process that involves passing a methyl group (one carbon atom plus three hydrogen atoms) to something else (a gene, neurotransmitter, etc.) in the body.3 While seemingly simple, methylation is “mind-bogglingly fundamental”.1 In fact, this critical process occurs billions of times every second to control the genetic expression of virtually every cell in the body.1,3

As if operating our switchboard of genes wasn’t a big enough job, methylation plays a huge role in detox, neurotransmitter modulation and cell defense. Additionally, it has a hand in the regulation of sympathetic and immune responses and supports brain, cardiovascular and muscle health.3 With involvement in such a broad range of homeostatic processes it’s not surprising that genetic mutations related to methylation are a hot topic. 

One gene, in particular, MTHFR (methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase), is just as important to the methylation cycle as it is hard to pronounce. It encodes for the MTHFR enzyme, which is responsible for converting dietary folate to its bioavailable form, methylfolate. The body uses methylfolate as the catalyst for the methylation cycle; without it, the cycle won’t begin.3 Having an MTHFR genetic mutation may decrease the number of methylation cycles happening in the body because it may cause a reduction the catalyst, bioavailable folate.  

Taking Care of Your MTHFR 

When I first saw “T/T Homozygous high risk” inscribed in the little box dubbed MTHFR C677T gene in my lab results, I did what no one should ever do. I googled it. Referred to colloquially as the mother f*cker gene, MTHFR mutations are associated with an increase in vascular disease, including heart disease and stroke, pregnancy-related complications such as neural tube defects, psychiatric disorders, dementia, multiple sclerosis, cancer etc. My scrolling pretty quickly escalated into a mild panic; does this mean I’m genetically screwed? 

Rest assured, if you find out you’ve got an MTHFR mutation, it isn’t doomsday. While those with genetic defects for diseases like cystic fibrosis are virtually guaranteed to develop the condition, this isn’t the case for developing the slew of conditions associated with the MTHFR mutation.2 This is because the degree to which methylation is affected depends on a large range of factors like our lifestyle, what we put into our bodies and the remaining 99% of our genes. 

Additionally, our risk of having a sluggish methylation cycle is influenced by whether we have one or two “faulty” copies of the gene. Those with one faulty copy (heterozygotes) can experience a 25%-30% loss of enzyme function while those with two faulty copies (homozygotes) can incur up to a 60%-80% loss.3 While an MTHFR defect may be symptomatic for some, other people might not feel the effects and may even be methylating okay. In fact, over 50% of all people have at least one faulty copy of the MTHFR gene.4

But for those of us experiencing some of the potential not-so-pleasant symptoms of poor methylation such as fatigue, digestive issues, headaches, nervous system dysregulation, and mood, endocrine and sleep disorders, there’s a lot we can do. While stress management and getting a good night’s sleep are most important, dietary support for methylation is also key. 

Spoiler alert: there’s no single supplement or diet to make you methylate like a champ. Rather we’ll look at how a variety of foods and spices from Traditional Chinese Medicine and how they can support the wood element, a key player in supporting healthy methylation. 

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Study Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine

If the study of methylation and how it affects your health is interesting to you, consider an education at Acupuncture and Integrative Medicine College in Berkeley. Our master’s and doctorate programs can teach you about holistic health practices and prepare you for a future as an acupuncturist. Contact us to learn more about our programs!

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