Let’s talk MTHFR, shall we? Either everyone you know is talking about it, nobody knows what it is, or you’re someone who thinks MTHFR is a cuss word. (No judgement here. I did too.)
I’m not the first person to write a post about this gene, but I feel like what I’ve read is either too complicated, left me with more questions than answers, or was over the top “alter your life for this gene at the exclusion of the rest of the human genome,” which isn’t the way to play either. So I’m breaking MTHFR down for you: what it is, why you should care, how you can figure out if you have any MTHFR defects, and what to do about it if you do. (This is by no means the end-all-be-all on this gene. It’s a simplistic starting point.)
What is MTHFR?
MTHFR stands for “methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase” and it’s kind of a big deal. Methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase is an enzyme (encoded by the MTHFR gene) that helps process your amino acids, build immune system cells, metabolize nutrients, turn genes on and off, regulate neurotransmitters (which influence sleep, behavior and brain function), hormones, energy, nerve membranes, chemical processing, and converts homocysteine into methionine – which is needed for muscle growth, metabolism, and glutathione (a major antioxidant) production.
Most importantly? The MTHFR gene makes B9 (folate) usable by the body and is essential to the DNA methylation cycle.
What is Methylation?
The MTHFR gene is involved in a process called “methylation.” Methylation determines how genes are expressed, how enzymes function, and how your body clears toxins. Because we encounter a cajillion toxins every day, it’s super important.
If this “methylation system” isn’t working right … you could experience depression, fibromyalgia, migraines, autism, birth defects, low energy, infertility, elevated levels of homocysteine, gotta sleep right now fatigue, IBS, ADD/ADHD, migraines, thyroid disfunction, metabolism disorders, autoimmune diseases, and even cancer.
If you have an MTHFR defect, it’s important that you’re on top of your methylation cycle so that the “light switch” that determines whether you get one of these health issues doesn’t turn on. #Epigenetics
Why is MTHFR Suddenly a Huge Deal?
One … because knowing your genetics is just plain awesome. Two … because it’s kind of the next big thing. And three … MTHFR plays a huge role in the methylation cycle, and the methylation cycle determines how your genes express themselves (*epigenetics*), and how your genes express themselves determine what health conditions you’ll experience. All of these epigenetic expressions can be passed down to your children; so knowing if you have a defect and being able to keep it from affecting your health (or theirs) is kind of awesome.
It’s also a big deal because at least half of our population has an MTHFR defect that prevents them from converting folate into a usable form and 14-20% have a more severe defect. Everyone else is probably doing any number of things that could throw off methylation without it.
Think about all of the conditions associated with MTHFR and methylation that we’re not treating correctly and all of the health issues that could be prevented in the first place just by identifying someone’s MTHFR status.
So, how do you know if you have an MTHFR defect and what can you do about it?
1. Genetic Testing for MTHFR
There are a few ways you can find out if you have an MTHFR defect: You can get your doctor to run a test or do an independent genetic test. The independent genetic test is better because you’ll get your entire genome report, it will test for mutations of the MTHFR gene, it’s relatively affordable, and you’ll get better data. The downside of this is that you have to do some of the work yourself.
On the flip side, you could get the test done by a doctor and covered by insurance, but it will only test for some MTHFR variants and your doctor probably won’t know what to do with the results. This would be an option if you simply need to know the status of the two main variants in order to avoid a procedure or medication.
To get a genetic test, go to 23 and me and order a kit. A few weeks after you return the kit you’ll get a raw data report. You’ll download it from 23andme and upload it to Sterling’s App. At that point you’ll have a ton of raw information (and studies) from PubMed on your genes. If you’re weird like me, you’ll want to upload it to Nutrahacker too because the more you know about yourself, the better. If you still can’t figure out what’s up or what to do, you can take this report to a practitioner who can walk you through it.
What if testing isn’t an option? If you have a medical condition or are leading a super, over-the-top stressful existence – void of sleep and all things green food – then you could probably benefit from methylation support even without a genetic test.
2. Identify Things That Could Throw Off Your Methylation
Regardless of whether you have a defect or not, there are a lot of things that could cause methylation issues like high Sam-E, high THF, Low B2, Low B12, a methylfolate deficiency, nitrous oxide, chemotherapy, autism, infertility, high BP, mental disorders, alcohol (Sorry ya’ll, alcohol interferes with methylation and depletes glutathione levels like it aint’ no thing.), magnesium, green coffee bean extract, heavy metals, chemicals, too much niacin, folic acid, low glutathione, medications, anxiety and stress, poor diet, lack of sleep, and gut disorders.
3. Ditch the Folic Acid
For years folic acid has been pushed on everyone and put into everything. The desire to prevent neural tube defects is a noble one, but folic acid is straight up bad for you. (If you want to know whether a supplement company is legit and up with the latest science, check the back of the label for folic acid.)
Folic acid and folate are NOT the same things. Folic acid is not in a form that the body can utilize or easily clear. It has to go through several steps to be broken down into a usable form and depletes glutathione levels (which throws off the methylation cycle). Unmetabolized folic acid leads to a decrease in natural killer cells and immune system dysfunction.
Methylfolate is the form of B9 that our genes really need. Folate … GOOD. Folic acid … BAD.
4. Eat. Sleep. And Supplement
Diet. The easiest thing you can do to up the methylfolate and boost methylation is to start eating folate-rich foods, like berries, hummus, spinach, uncooked greens, lentils, asparagus, and beets. (However, if you have health issues, this alone might not be enough.)
Sleep. There is a legit connection between sleep and DNA methylation and this is where the MTHFR magic happens. Lack of sleep can make the MTHFR gene manifest its defect through any number of ways from immune system disfunction to metabolic disorders.
Supplement. Start with a good methylfolate supplement and the B12 needed to utilize it. You want a B12 supplement that can be dissolved under the tongue and the form of B12 you get (hydroxy or methyl) should be based off of your genetic report. (If you don’t have one, I’d lean towards methyl B12.)
If you’re really knowledgeable about supplements and you want to dig deeper, here’s a list of other supplements known to help MTHFR defects and methylation:
- L methylfolate + N-Acetyl-L-Cysteine
- Epsom Salt Baths or Natural Calm (Magnesium)
- Vitamin C (Lypo Spheric)
- Vitamin B6
- DMG or TMG (Promotes healthy homocysteine levels)
- Omega 3’s / Udo’s Oil
- Vitamin E
- Glutathione (Must be liposomal or lypo-spheric to survive stomach acid or taken as a cream.)
- Neuropure (Methylfolate + Neurotransmitter precursors)
- Homocystex Plus
- Methyl Guard (This supplement includes folate + B vitamins + betaine anhydrous)
- Children’s Multivitamin (Ideal for kids with MTHFR defects)
5. Toxins, Sweat, and Other Things You Can Do
- Decrease your exposure to toxins.
- Avoid antacids (which block the absorption of B12).
- Get a urine test for heavy metals and remove them (especially if you have an MTHFR defect that inhibits your methylation cycle from doing it).
- Exercise to boost serotonin levels.
- Sweat … a lot. (Some toxins are best or only eliminated via sweat.)
- Improve your metabolism.
- Switch to extended release niacin.
- Avoid BPA (shown to disrupt methylation).
6. Don’t Go Off the MTHFR Deep-End
I feel like I should mention the flip-side here because people can get a little crazy with all things MTHFR. (I’m pretty sure there are clubs you can join…) First, don’t to take too much of any supplement (including folate), as it could speed up methylation too quickly. Second, don’t center your life around this one gene. You have thousands of genes and they’re all inter-connected. Sometimes what you would do to help one gene function better can negatively affect another.
At the same time you need to be on your game if you suspect you or your child do have MTHFR defects because they could increase susceptibility to certain health conditions, adverse reactions to vaccinations and medications, and play a role in determining the most effective way to address a health crisis.