Examples are the synthesizing of melatonin to help with sleep, making special lipids (called phospholipids) that cell membranes are primarily composed of and causing the main fight/flight neurotransmitter (noradrenalin) to go away so we can relax.
Generally, those who are genetically less capable of this reaction or adding a carbon group on to a molecule to turn it into another molecule, are diagnosed as having “methylation defects,” as if such people are genetic misfits. In fact, one can make the opposite case. These “defective” people are often more productive, robust workers, emotionally sensitive and creative, because they are less capable of metabolizing away the primary, fight/flight neurotransmitter, noradrenalin, from their brains.
The down side to being an “under-methylator”, as I am, is a tendency to be more compulsive, perfectionistic, anxious, addiction-prone and moody. In our younger years, when we are more physiologically able to withstand extra fight/flight, sympathetic stress, we can become over-achievers. We are driven by our genes to work harder and make more money. We can appear to be extroverted movers and shakers, and be attractive as mates, which is why these genes are so common. We pass them on during our reproductive years to produce under-methylating children. Later, after midlife and the child-bearing years, the extra sympathetic stress caused by this condition tends to take its toll in the form of higher cancer and heart disease rates.
A little more genetic get up and go can be helpful, but too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. The same is true of the “under-methylators.” We all get 2 sets of genes from each parent, and those of us who get one abnormal gene and one normal gene (called heterozygous) can get the benefits of more productivity and success, even though they can pay somewhat of a downside price by experiencing some extra stress. Those, like me, who get 2 abnormal genes, one from each parent (called homozygous), can be so sympathetically stressed to succeed, that even in our younger, more viable years, emotional stress can be overwhelming.
I often wondered why I was so driven and compelled to be the best at everything I did, whether it was academics, sports or music. It was a good thing I had sports to burn off that extra stress, and I am blessed with discovering mindfulness meditation in my 20’s, or else I could have become an emotional basket case.
Methylation Works Like Relay Runners in a Race
The process of how methylation happens is like runners handing off the baton in a race. Methyl groups come from various sources or donor molecules, which wind up on a type of folic acid called 5-MTHR or 5-methyl-tetra-hydro-folate. That then hands off the methyl groups to B12, which hands them off like a runner in a race to homocysteine which then becomes methionine, which turns into SAMe or s-adenosylmethionine which then hands off the groups to dozens of different molecules, including noradrenalin, the anxiety, perfectionism, compulsivity-causing, fight/flight neurotransmitter to make it go away, and importantly also to a serotonin metabolite to synthesize melatonin so we can sleep more restfully.
There are several genetic variations of MTHFR, which cause the first runner in the race to be slower by 30% to 70%, depending on the DNA.
Some patients I have tested have serious problems at both ends, that is, a slow runner in the beginning and at the end of the race, and they can really struggle with mental and physical issues at any age. Such individuals deserve our utmost medical attention, which is why I believe that it is important to test every younger patient suffering from a mental disorder or an addiction for methylation defects, and equally important to test every older patient for these polymorphisms who have cancer and heart disease.
These genes, like dozens of others I routinely test for in my practice, are common, important and modifiable.
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A more complete article about methylation is available here: