What Is Methylation & Why Is It Important? Experts Break It Down

At the most basic level, methylation and demethylation refer to the transfer of methyl groups—simple structures of one carbon and three hydrogen molecules (CH3)—to and from various bioactive compounds in the body. These compounds (e.g. proteins, enzymes, hormones, and more) must be methylated in order to function optimally or to create other substances required by the body. For example, methylation is essential for the production of certain amino acids, neurotransmitters, hormones, and antioxidants that directly impact neurological, cardiovascular, reproductive health, and more.

DNA methylation is somewhat different, and specifically refers to the attachment of methyl groups to certain segments of DNA, which, in turn, tells the body what genes should be turned on and off. DNA, in turn, is the code or instructions for a wide array of functional proteins to be made throughout our body, from signaling molecules and neurotransmitters, to hormones, antibodies, and more.

Typically, DNA methylation turns genes off (and as it turns out, is relevant to life and health, from early development to immunity, memory formation, and more), while demethylation turns genes on. DNA methylation is an example of epigenetics—that is, changes in the physical structure of DNA caused by your behaviors (including nutrition, lifestyle, etc.) or environment, which can be passed down from parent to child. 

The methyl groups that participate in methylation come from a variety of micronutrients in your diet collectively dubbed “methyl donors,” which include folate (B9), vitamin B12, vitamin B6, riboflavin (B2), betaine, choline, and several others.* You’ll notice the prominence of essential B vitamins in this lineup. Folate is probably the most well known methyl donor, so we’ll use it as an example to highlight exactly how methylation works.

Once you consume folate or take a folic acid supplement, the enzyme MTHFR theoretically (more on the MTHFR gene mutation later) converts it into a bioactive form called methylfolate or 5-MTHF, which can now serve as a methyl donor for those widespread health functions mentioned earlier (think heart, brain, detox, etc.).*

Specifically, 5-MTHF donates a methyl group to the amino acid homocysteine to form the amino acid methionine; and methionine, in turn, can be activated to form S-adenosylmethionine (SAM-e). SAM-e is important because it functions as a “universal methyl donor” for all biological methylation processes in the body, including DNA methylation, which means it donates methyl groups to all sorts of acceptor molecules to support optimal physiological functioning, globally in the body.  

After SAM-e has donated its methyl groups, it’s converted back to homocysteine, which can go on to produce cysteine (another amino acid) and then master antioxidant glutathione, or to accept another methyl group from 5-MTHF and repeat the cycle. The methylation cycle, that is.

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