Tiny differences in one of your genes can have wide-ranging effects on your health. Chances are you’ve never heard of your MTHFR gene, and you probably wouldn’t suspect it of contributing to your health problems.
In this blog we’ll examine the link between this gene and a process called methylation. Knowing how your genetic inheritance affects methylation can help you live your healthiest life.
Your genes have the job of directing enzymes, which help transform one substance into another. For example, enzymes allow you make use of vitamins and minerals, produce energy and manufacture hormones.
Genes commonly possess one or more mutations, specific differences handed down from your parents.
Mutations sound scary, but they’re just another name for variants, parts of genes which happen to be different from person to person. Variants sit at different positions on genes and affect how they instruct your body.
Everyone has two MTHFR genes, one handed down from each parent. Mutations of this gene are surprisingly common with an estimated 30% of people having at least one variant in this gene.
It’s possible to have one or two mutations because you inherit one copy of the gene from each of your parents. Mutations can happen at specific positions on the gene, each producing distinct effects.
Your MTHFR gene directs the enzyme of the same name. MTHFR gene mutations cause the enzyme to be inactive or reduce its functioning.
The MTHFR enzyme is involved in a process called methylation. Methylation is crucial to good health, constantly occurring in every cell of your body. It’s all about helping your body regulate biochemical reactions.
During methylation, many intermediate products are produced along the way. These are converted to other substances in complicated chain reactions. Homocysteine is one of these substances. It’s not meant to hang around for very long as it can damage tissues, particularly blood vessels.
In an ideal world, homocysteine would be quickly transformed into a different, harmless substance. But in some cases, including mutations in the MTHFR gene, it can build up to dangerous levels.
Specific nutrients are needed to perform the conversions involved in methylation. These include vitamins B2, B6 and B12, zinc and folate.
Folate is a type of B vitamin, also known as vitamin B9. Closely related to folic acid, folate is the naturally occurring form of the vitamin found in food. You’ll also find folic acid in supplements and added to fortified foods such as breakfast cereals and flour.
Both folate and folic acid must be converted into an active form before they can be used.
MTHFR gene mutations reduce the activity of the enzyme needed for this conversion. Because folate isn’t then readily available to process homocysteine, levels will rise. It also means you won’t experience the other benefits from folate, such as DNA repair.
If you have a genetic variant you’ll need more folate than the average person to keep the methylation cogs turning.
Leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale and rocket are your best sources of folate, along with other greens such as asparagus, broccoli and lettuce. It’s also found in beans, chickpeas citrus fruits and sunflower seeds.
If on the other hand you can’t convert folic acid to its active form, that too can build up in your bloodstream, leading to health problems. So if you take supplements it’s better to take the active form of folate rather than folic acid.
High homocysteine due to inefficient methylation is known to play a role in heart disease, with some researchers believing it’s a better predictor of heart issues than cholesterol levels. It’s also connected with mental health, because it can affect the availability of brain neurotransmitters. These help your brain cells communicate with one another. Too much homocysteine has been associated with anxiety and depression, and even schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Because methylation is important for so many body processes, mutations can cause a wide array of symptoms, such as chronic pain and fatigue, migraines, glaucoma and pregnancy complications such as neural tube defects.
In many cases, you’ll experience diverse symptoms which can’t be put down to any discernible cause, so you might never suspect you have a mutation in this gene. Luckily, testing your genetic code is relatively simple, since it can be revealed by looking at your saliva.
Genetic variants of the MTHFR gene have more of an effect when they’re combined with certain lifestyle choices such as stress, smoking, alcohol, or too little exercise. So once you know your genetic tendency, lifestyle and nutritional strategies can help you maximise your methylation and control your homocysteine levels. Contact me today to find out more.
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