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November 4, 2019

Part II: Balancing Methylation Through Diet

Methylation: Too much of a good thing? 

When looking at methylation disorders, a lot of emphasis is placed on health challenges that come with hypomethylation or not methylating enough. While this stands to be a valid concern, especially for those with an MTHFR mutation, it is equally important to consider the flip side. Excessive methylation or hypermethylation can also lead to its own set of health issues.1 As with most things, more is not always better. With this in mind, what steps might we take to work towards balancing methylation by utilizing Traditional Chinese Medicine dietary wisdom? 

The *magic spark* of methylation 

A good place to focus dietary support to improve methylation is the liver organ system. The liver provides a spark of yang energy that is mandatory for growth; without it, we become stuck in our thoughts, habits and decisions generating feelings of frustration, vexation and displeasure. The Classic of Sagely states “the process of germinating and nurturing the twelve meridian systems is triggered by the liver”,2 demonstrating the liver’s role in the generation and regulation of all bodily processes. 

Methylation is no exception. From an energetic standpoint, a healthy liver organ system is needed for both the generation and regulation of the methylation cycle. On a biochemical level, we know that folate is needed to kick-start the cycle.3 Without folate, the cycle stagnates. Essentially, we can think of our liver yang as an energetic folate; a healthy spark of liver yang energy is the necessary catalyst to initiate the cycle. With this in mind, how can we nourish ourselves to support these processes? 

Eat more greens to support the liver 

The liver organ system flourishes in the chaotic growth characteristic of Springtime, and there are few things restore the free-flowing abilities of the liver like the fresh greens of Spring. Maybe not so coincidentally, leafy greens are one of the best dietary sources of folate.3 Recalling that folate is the catalyst for the methylation cycle, it’s no surprise that getting enough of this key nutrient is one of the most helpful steps to take when thinking of supporting methylation.3

Leafy greens like spinach, endives, bok choy, kale, lettuce and chard are excellent sources of folate.3 Eating raw greens or preparing them lightly steamed is the best way to ensure the max dose of folate because boiling for just several few minutes may reduce the folate content by at least half.4 Not stoked on leafy greens? Beans, beets, cruciferous veggies and citrus fruits are also excellent sources of folate.3

Folate vs folic acid; does it really matter? 

When choosing between getting our folate from dietary sources or a folic acid supplement, it turns out those of us with an MTHFR mutation cannot readily convert folic acid to a usable form.5 Without being able to convert folic acid to bioactive folate, it can potentially build up in high concentrations in the body. High circulating levels of unmetabolized folate have been shown to increase risk for cancer development so it is best to opt for dietary folate or if deemed necessary, to supplement methylfolate instead of folic acid.6

Nourish yin to support yang 

Liver yin and yang are two sides of the same coin that function harmoniously to keep us in a “motivated yet anchored” state. In order to maintain the “spark” of liver yang energy needed for methylation, liver yin must be nourished. Foods that have the ability to nourish the yin as well as the blood of the liver include things like pastured meats (organ meats are a bonus), bone broth, fish, eggs, and mushrooms. These foods also happen to be rich sources of cobalamine (B12), riboflavin (B2) and choline.7,3 

Having enough B12, B2 and choline is important when it comes to methylation because these nutrients are needed for the conversion of the toxic byproduct of methylation, homocysteine, into a useful compound, methionine.3 Elevated levels of homocysteine are implicated in the pathogenesis of cardiovascular disease, one of the primary concerns associated with MTHFR gene mutations and methylation imbalances.8

A note on B12 for vegetarians and vegans 

Many traditional foods that nourish liver yin and provide adequate dietary levels of B12 fall out of the vegetarian/vegan scope. Fermented foods, algae, and nutritional yeast are thought to be good sources of B12, but modern research is showing plant sources actually contain B12 analogs called cobamides that block the absorption of and increase the need for true B12.9 These tasty and nutritious foods shouldn’t be avoided, but rather they shouldn’t be used to meet B12 needs. Vegetarians can obtain B12 from raw milk and cheese as well as pasture-raised eggs, and true-to-the core vegans struggling with B12 deficiency may consider supplementing with a B12 vitamin in the methylcobalamin form.3

 Support the free flow of qi with these foods and this mineral 

In addition to getting a daily dose of leafy greens and yin-enriching foods, moderately pungent foods and spices can help move stagnant liver qi. Radish, mustard greens, watercress, alliums, turmeric, cardamom, dill, mint, basil, cumin and black pepper are great for venting the liver.7 Be cautious with overly spicy pungent foods like hot chili peppers, as these may generate heat in the liver.7 Other non-pungent foods that promote liver qi movement include beets, taro root, sweet rice, strawberry, peach, cherry and cruciferous vegetables.7

One particular mineral that helps get the liver qi flowing is magnesium. According to Paul Pitchford, a deficiency of magnesium is often a component of the majority of liver organ system imbalances.7 We see this play out in the efficacy of magnesium for alleviating muscle spasms, which often fall under a picture of liver blood deficiency or liver wind. Dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, fish, beans, avocados, and whole grains are all excellent sources of magnesium.3

Diet: Only a small piece of the pie

With all these recommendations in mind, it’s easy to go down a rabbit hole of what we think our diet needs to look like to feel healthy without considering other aspects of our lives that might need to be brought into balance. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve spent way too much time clogging up an aisle in Berkeley Bowl reading over a Clif Bar label or wondering if that cilantro cleanse I saw on Instagram is *actually* a good idea. In fact, I often need the reminder that there are other, often bigger aspects of our lifestyle that contribute to our well being, like building community, getting enough quality sleep (the liver rejuvenates between 1-3am) and finding enjoyable ways to move and create. Because after all, diet really is only a small piece of the whole pie. 

*Disclaimer* Genetic testing, lab work and supplementation should be done in consult with your medical doctor. I’m not a healthcare professional: I’m a student studying Chinese Medicine in Berkeley, CA. My research is fueled by dark chocolate, a desire to share what I’m learning and what I wish I knew earlier. Feel free to drop me a line, I’d love to connect! emstewart228@gmail.com 

References 

  1. Kresser C. Treating Methylation: Are We Over-supplementing? Kresser Institute. https://kresserinstitute.com/treating-methylation-supplementing/. Published June 21, 2017. Accessed September 21, 2019.
  2. Fruehauf H. The Liver and Gall Bladder: Selected Readings. ClassicalChineseMedicine.org. https://classicalchinesemedicine.org/liver-gall-bladder-selected-readings/. Published 2004. Accessed September 21, 2019.
  3. Lynch B. Dirty Genes: a Breakthrough Program to Treat the Root Cause of Illness and Optimize Your Health. New York, NY: HarperOne; 2018. 
  4. Mckillop DJ, Pentieva K, Daly D, et al. The effect of different cooking methods on folate retention in various foods that are amongst the major contributors to folate intake in the UK diet. British Journal of Nutrition. 2002;88(6):681-688. doi:10.1079/bjn2002733. 
  5. Miller A. What is Methylation and Why Should You Care About it. Thorne. https://www.thorne.com/take-5-daily/article/what-is-methylation-and-why-should-you-care-about-it. Published September 3, 2018. Accessed June 20, 2019. 
  6. Kresser C. Folate vs Folic Acid – The Little Known Difference. https://chriskresser.com/folate-vs-folic-acid/. Published June 17, 2019. Accessed September 21, 2019.
  7. Pitchford P. Healing with Whole Foods. North Atlantic Books; 2002.
  8. Ganguly P, Alam SF. Role of homocysteine in the development of cardiovascular disease. Nutrition Journal. 2015;14(1). doi:10.1186/1475-2891-14-6.
  9. Kresser C. Why You Should Think Twice about Vegetarian and Vegan Diets. https://chriskresser.com/why-you-should-think-twice-about-vegetarian-and-vegan-diets/. Published June 4, 2019. Accessed September 21, 2019.

About the Author Erin Stewart

I found my way to the profession of Traditional Chinese Medicine out of a desire to provide clinical care that is integrative, affordable and rooted in prevention. This medicine has been deeply influential in supporting my own health and vitality, and I’m thrilled to be taking the next steps to be able to share this medicine with my community. I’m currently a candidate for a Master’s in Oriental Medicine and Acupuncture at the Acupuncture and Integrative Medicine College in Berkeley, California. When I’m not studying acupuncture, I find great joy in waking up in a tent, Farmer’s Market “retail therapy” and a good powder day up in the mountains. 

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