Is There a Link Between Autism and Methylation
World Autism Day aims to increase awareness of and inclusion for people with autism.
In this article, we ask the question, is there a link between Autism and methylation.
To understand what’s meant by methylation, think of a biochemical cycle constantly taking place in every cell of your body. The process transfers a collection of atoms known as a methyl group from one substance to another. During methylation, many chemical groups are produced and converted to other substances in a chain of chemical reactions. So methylation acts like a little factory supplying methyl groups to a complex assembly line in your body.
Methylation is one of the most important functions occurring in your body, and it’s essential for your cells to work effectively. It regulates thousands of processes including how your genes express themselves, DNA manufacture, energy production, detoxification, immune cell construction and the manufacture of brain chemicals.
Because methylation is so important all over your body, if you’re not methylating well you may experience wide-ranging physical and mental health effects. Poor methylation is connected with fatigue, mood issues, anxiety, memory problems, cardiovascular disease, hormone imbalances and chronic inflammation along with many other health issues.
Problems with methylation appear to particularly affect the brain. Although research into autism is ongoing, scientists are increasingly finding a connection between inefficient methylation and the development of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
What Causes Problems with Methylation?
- Your Genetic Inheritance
You may be genetically predisposed to being a poor methylator. Many genes are involved in controlling the methylation cycle, and differences in these genes have been discovered in people with autism.
Genes direct enzymes, enabling chemical reactions to occur. The process of methylation depends on several enzymes as well as specific nutrients.
One of the most important nutrients needed for methylation to occur is vitamin B9, otherwise known as folate. Many different types of folate exist in nature, but your body needs the folate to be in a form it can easily use for efficient methylation to occur.
Variants in a gene known as MTHFR, thought to affect up to a quarter of the population, can affect the production of an enzyme needed to produce the active form of folate. Research has found this genetic variant is higher in children with autism.
It’s worth remembering folic acid is not the same as folate, although the terms are often used interchangeably. Folic acid is a synthetic form of vitamin B9 added to food and used in some supplements, and it first needs to be converted to an active form before it can be used.
Although a genetic variant can make you more likely to have issues with methylation, whether or not this genetic tendency is expressed depends on environmental factors such as nutritional deficiencies, stress, environmental toxins and the condition of your microbiome, the population of bacteria resident in your gut and elsewhere in your body.
- Your Immune System
Scientists believe the immune system sometimes produces antibodies binding to the receptors responsible for transporting folate into the brain. This means these receptors can no longer respond to folate, even when it’s been converted to its active form, so it can’t access the brain to help with methylation there.
Children with ASD have been found to have more of these antibodies compared to children without autis
- Your Toxic Load
Toxic metals such as mercury and lead can block the methylation cycle, while problems with methylation can mean your body struggles to detoxify heavy metals and other toxins effectively.
On the other hand, genetic mutations can mean some people are better at detoxifying unwanted substances than others.
Scientists estimate there are over one thousand different species of bacteria, fungi and viruses living in your gut, all coexisting harmoniously. One of the fascinating things about your microbiome is it’s completely personal to you. Although certain species of bacteria tend to be present in everyone, the dominant species in your microbiome, the number of different types of bacteria and their various quantities are all influenced by your diet, lifestyle and health history.
Your personal bacterial population all emit different chemical messengers, because certain species are better at producing some chemicals than others. Friendly bacteria produce anti-inflammatory chemicals. Other bacteria are not so beneficial, releasing chemicals encouraging inflammation, and ideally these are kept in check by your friendly bacteria. Think of a garden where plant-eating pests are naturally kept in check by other insects such as ladybirds. When this balance becomes upset in the natural world, plants are damaged by aphids, while imbalances in your microbiome mean unfriendly bacteria increase inflammation in your body, disrupt digestion and upset your immune system. Dysbiosis of your microbiome can also lead to oxidative stress, resulting in DNA damage and ageing, and is generally considered to cause an increased risk of disease.
In your microbiome ecosystem, diversity definitely matters, with people having a wide variety of bacterial species more likely to enjoy good health. In studies, researchers found people suffering from chronic, non-infectious diseases tended to have a less diverse microbiome. As in a natural ecosystem, diversity equals resilience – if one species dies out, it’s less likely to have an impact than if there are only a few species in a particular community.
If you are caring for a child with ASD, it’s important to ensure their methylation cycle is as efficient as possible.
Alongside folate, other nutrients needed to keep the methylation wheels turning include vitamins B6, B12 and B2, along with zinc and magnesium. Studies have found a typical Western diet, with a high sugar content, decreases methylation efficiency.
The health of the bacteria living in the microbiome can affect the expression of genetic tendencies, so keeping the gut bacteria in good condition can help keep methylation functioning well. We know disturbances in gut bacteria are a common problem amongst people with ASD.
Testing to discover whether a mutation is present in the gene responsible for controlling methylation is simple and only needs a sample of urine. This can help reveal whether a genetic variant is impacting your child’s health and behaviour.
The process of methylation is extremely complex, but I’m here to help. Strategies like supporting your child’s microbiome, improving detoxification, avoiding toxin exposure and restoring optimum nutrient balance can all help ensure the methylation process happens efficiently.