Diet for MTHFR/Methylation
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
If working properly, the process of methylation keeps us healthy and alive.
Methylation regulates our genes switching on and off and silences viruses. When functioning optimally, methylation processes keep certain genes switched off, such as those that cause birth defects, cancers and auto-immune disease, while allowing genes to switch on that help our body systems run effectively. We call this gene expression.
The processes of methylation biochemically contribute greatly to who we are, what we look like, how we act – and are also central to our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
We normally go about our daily lives never being aware of these processes. Meanwhile this process is making, maintaining, and repairing our DNA – our genetic coding. We can get an ‘epigenetic’ effect where the way we choose to live our lives can affect our gene expression.
It is these events, stressors and loving care that either support or hinder the natural process of building and repairing our body.
Methylation is involved in many of our most vital bodily functions, by offering support and/or managing, processes such as:
- Controlling inflammation
- Maintaining DNA
- Immune function
- Energy production
- Mood balancing
Conditions linked to poor methylation
Some of the conditions linked to poor methylation, but are not limited to, include:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- autistic spectrum disorders
- cardiovascular disease
- chronic fatigue syndrome
- digestive problems
- fertility and difficulties in pregnancy
- immune system disorders
- mood and psychiatric disorders
- neurological conditions
- pyrrole disorder
- the aging process
One well known methylation disorder is MTHFR. The letters MTHFR stand for methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase. The MTHFR gene is a genetic polymorphism, or what is seen as a genetic variance or flaw in many people.
MTHFR is about two genes that help the body to convert folic acid into its active usable form.
A mutation in the MTHFR gene may affect fertility in both sexes, mood disorders, mental health, autism spectrum disorders, risk of venous thrombosis and is associated with elevated plasma homocysteine.
Homocysteine is a chemical in the blood that is produced when an amino acid called methionine is broken down in the body. We all have some homocysteine in our blood, but high levels of homocysteine (hyperhomocysteinemia) may cause inflammation of the blood vessels.
About half of the population have this genetic defect that affects the ability of the body to convert folic acid and thereby create problems regulating homocysteine levels in the body, among other methylation issues.
This can increase the risk of hardening of the arteries which could eventually result in a heart attack, stroke and blood clots in the veins, referred to as venous thrombosis.
We all have two MTHFR genes, one genetically acquired from each parent. Some people have a genetic mutation in one or both of their MTHFR genes. People with mutations in one MTHFR gene are called ‘heterozygous’ for the MTHFR mutation, but if mutations are present in both genes, the person is said to be ‘homozygous’ for the mutation.
The most common MTHFR mutation is called the MTHFR C677T mutation. Another common mutation is called MTHFR A1298C. To have any detrimental effect, mutations would usually be present in both copies of a person’s MTHFR genes. Even when two MTHFR mutations are present (e.g. 2 C677T mutations, or one C677T mutation and one A1298C mutation) not all people will develop high homocysteine levels.
Although these mutations do impair the regulation of homocysteine, consuming plenty of folate essentially ‘cancels out’ the effect of this defect, especially if the folate is consumed from foods or the more active form of folate such as calcium folinate or 5MTHF.
What I am sharing with you about methylation and MTHFR genetic disorders is just the tip of the iceberg. If you wish to read a more detailed and scientific explanation about this topic, please check my article on this website.
If you know that you have a methylation disorder, no doubt you will already know much about this topic. In this article, the primary focus is about food to support these pathway imbalances.
The symptoms of MTHFR faulty gene expression include anything that relates to low folate in your body. These can include fatigue, depression, anxiety, insomnia, cardiovascular disease, increased risk for birth defects, and other vague complaints such as aches and pains.
Good levels of folate are needed for:
- Making red blood cells and preventing anaemia
- Proper nerve function
- Bone health
- Healthy brain and memory
- Proper immune system function
- Healthy cardiovascular system
- Cell production, especially in skin and the digestive tract
- Prevention of neural-tube defects such as cleft lip and palate and spina bifida in a developing foetus
- Preventing miscarriage
To diagnose MTHFR you can do a simple swab inside your mouth or a blood test with your doctor or naturopath for the genetic testing. You can either just get the two genes related to MTHFR tested or you can do a full screen of available genes with a private company that does these via a home testing kit.
Homocysteine is a simple blood test that your doctor can request from pathology to see how your body is managing with any gene defects. If your genes are showing that you do have one or two defects, but your homocysteine level is in the middle of the reference range, then food is your best treatment.
If you discover that you have homozygous expression of your genes (meaning both genes are faulty) and you have elevated homocysteine levels, then you may require prescriptive doses of B12 and activated folate (B9) depending on how high your levels are and how bad your symptoms may be. This is determined by your practitioner/doctor.
By far the best way to support these issues is with food (but always be guided by your doctor/practitioner). I have seen and know of hundreds of clients with methylation disorders who, when supplemented (not always by me), found that the supplements only made things worse (also due to methylation disorders).
When I recommended to use food to support these disorders, we got much better results. That’s not to say that nutritional supplements don’t have their place – for many they certainly do. But some people are very sensitive to these specific ingredients due to other imbalances.
Either way (with or without supplements) supporting your body with the right diet can have a huge impact on the quality of your health.
Methylation disorders are somewhat associated with the liver, therefore anything that adversely affects the liver may undermine the good efforts done elsewhere to support your body. More often than not, people with methylation disorders find they have increased sensitivity to these substances, so it makes sense to avoid them wherever possible.
These substances include alcohol, caffeine in coffee, black tea, caffeinated drinks, colas, energy drinks, sports drinks and pre-gym caffeinated workout mixes. Any drug, medication or pain killer can put extra stress and workload on the liver. Having said that, if you are on prescription medication don’t stop unless your health care provider recommends to do so.
Some pharmaceuticals can be worse than others. For example, codeine and paracetamol can strongly affect your liver and also rob the liver of glutathione, a powerful antioxidant amino acid that the liver uses to detoxify. Other options for pain relief can be the ibuprofen class of drugs or anti-inflammatory herbs, spices, and oils (as prescribed by your health care provider). Some of these will still affect the liver but not rob the body of as much glutathione.
Foods that seem to affect those with methylation defects are those that are more difficult to digest, or foods that you are intolerant or allergic to. Most common foods and food substances that are best avoided include foods containing gluten or dairy, foods that are heavily processed or have artificial ingredients, food colouring and preservatives, nitrates from hams, bacons, smoked foods and smallgoods.
The more natural and unprocessed a food is, the better it is for the liver and your good health in general.
Now let’s look at foods that are rich in the vital nutrients needed for methylation disorders. The most important nutrients for healthy methylation are folate, B6, zinc, and B12.
Folate (not folic acid)
Notice I say ‘not folic acid’. This is because folic acid is a synthetic folate and when someone has a methylation disorder such as MTHFR, they have a poor ability to convert the synthetic form of folate into the active form needed by the body for many vital reasons.
In fact, folic acid (often found fortified in processed foods such as bread and breakfast cereals) can block the good folates in the diet from being absorbed. Then the very reason why we take folate, such as during pregnancy, is made worse by taking the synthetic forms.
Natural folate is found in abundance in leafy green vegetables, something we all should eat plenty of for many reasons, other than methylation disorders.
Foods rich in B6 (around 20mg per day is good)
Rice bran contains the most vitamin B6 and makes a nice breakfast cereal topped with one of the new blended coconut rice milks or almond milks (if no nut allergies).
- 07mg B6 per 100g
Dried Herbs and Spices
Although dried herbs and spices are rarely used in large portions, adding a few extra pinches to your sauces, soups and stews is a great way to get more vitamin B6 into your diet.
- Paprika – 0.28mg B6 per tablespoon
- Garlic powder – 0.22mg B6 per tablespoon
- Chilli powder – 0.20mg B6 per tablespoon
- Dried tarragon, ground sage, dried spearmint, basil, chives, turmeric, bay leaves, rosemary, dill, onion powder, oregano, and marjoram. All around 0.10 – 0.20mg B6 per tablespoon.
Pistachios are a delicious snack and a great addition to salads.
- 70mg B6 per 100g (raw)
- 27mg B6 per 100g (roasted)
Garlic provides a host of health benefits and is also a great source of vitamin B6. Garlic is a great base for salad dressings, stir-frys, and also makes a good condiment.
- 235mg B6 per 100g
- 04mg B6 per clove or teaspoon
Liver is an amazing nutrient rich food that is commonly eaten as pâtés and sausages but are also great lightly stir fried with greens or pureed into a gravy. Most types of liver provide lots of vitamin B6. All organ meats are rich in B6.
- Turkey liver – 1.04mg B6 per 100g | 0.86mg in an average turkey liver
- Beef liver – 1.03mg B6 per 100g
Fish (Tuna, Salmon, and Cod)
Fish is a heart healthy food and a good source of protein. Yellow-fin Tuna provides the most vitamin B6.
- Yellow fin tuna – 1.04mg B6 per 100g
- Atlantic salmon – 0.94mg B6 per 100g | 1.45mg in half a fillet.
Sunflower and Sesame Seeds (e.g. as Tahini)
Sunflower and Sesame seeds are a great addition to salads, as well as a snack on their own.
- Sunflower seeds – 0.81mg B6 per 100g or 1.1mg per cup
- Whole roasted sesame seeds – 0.80mg per 100g or 1.1mg per cup
- Sesame butter – 0.15mg B6 per 100g | 0.04mg per cup
- Tahini – 0.15mg B6 per 100g | 0.04mg per cup
Pork Tenderloin (Lean)
Lean Pork Tenderloin, also a zinc rich food, provides the most vitamin B6 when cooked roasted. Other grass-fed meats are also rich in B6
- Pork tenderloin – 0.74mg B6 per 100g.
- Dry roasted hazelnuts – 0.62mg B6 per 100g
Egg yolk (especially raw)
- A good source of B6 – 0.05mg B6 per egg
Foods rich in Zinc (15mg per day is a good minimum)
- 6 cooked Oysters – 76.4mg zinc
- Crab and Lobster – 2.5mg per 100g
Beef and Lamb
- 5mg zinc per 100g
Spinach (cooked or raw)
- 8mg zinc per 100g
Other Green Leafy Vegetables
- Amaranth Leaves, Endive, Radiccio, Rocket – 0.2mg zinc per 100g
- Pumpkin and Squash Seeds – 10.3mg zinc per 100g
- Sesame seeds or tahini – 7.0mg zinc per 100g
- Other Seeds High in zinc – Sunflower, Chia and Flaxseeds.
- Cashews – 5.0g zinc per 100g
- Pine nuts, pecans, almonds, walnuts, peanuts, hazelnuts – av 1.0g zinc per 100g
Pork & Chicken
- Pork steak – 1.5mg zinc per 100g
- Chicken – 2.0mg zinc per 100g
- Mung beans, baked beans, adzuki, chickpeas, kidney beans – 0.5mg zinc per 100g
- 0mg zinc per 100g
Foods rich in Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is rich in meat, eggs and a small amount is also in mushrooms. It is also in smaller amounts in most green vegetables.
Other nutrients that can support methylation disorders
These include vitamin E, selenium, boron, vitamin B2, vitamin B3, magnesium, methionine, choline, and betaine.
Rich sources of vitamin E are in almonds, raw seeds like pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds, swiss chard, mustard greens, spinach, turnip greens, kale, coconut oil, hazelnuts, pine nuts, avocado, broccoli, parsley, papaya and olives.
Selenium is in Brazil nuts, seafood, grass-fed beef, turkey, beef or chicken liver, egg and spinach.
Boron is in chickpeas, almonds, beans, bananas, walnuts, avocado, broccoli, prunes, oranges, red grapes, apples, raisins, pears, and many other beans and legumes.
Vitamin B2 is in found in beef, lamb, mushrooms, spinach, almonds, sundried tomatoes, oily fish, eggs, fish, pork, sesame seeds, and spinach.
Vitamin B3 is in found in fish, chicken, turkey, pork, liver, peanuts, beef, mushrooms, peas, sunflower seeds, and avocado.
Magnesium is in green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish, beans, whole grains, avocados, bananas, dried fruit, dark chocolate.
Methionine is in nuts, beef, lamb, turkey, pork, fish, shellfish, soy, eggs, and beans.
Choline is in collard greens, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, Swiss chard, cauliflower, eggs and asparagus.
Betaine is in beets/beetroot, quinoa, spinach, amaranth, sweet potato, turkey, veal and beef.
Before you commence your diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance about what foods and supplements are best for your body. While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.
Client name and identifying information changed
When Debbie came to me she had already had two miscarriages and then a baby with a cleft lip, even though she had been taking a supplement with high doses of folic acid because of her previous miscarriages.
I suggested testing for the MTHFR gene defect. The results determined that she was homozygous for the gene defect. This meant that she had two gene faults and was at a higher risk of miscarriage and cleft lip (not to mention increased risk for vascular issues).
These gene defects also meant that she had a reduced capacity to convert synthetic folic acid to the folate that she and her baby needed. There were a few other things we tested to see if there was any other reason for miscarriage risk, but these appeared to be ok.
I started her on a pregnancy formula supplement with active folate and advised her to also eat plenty of folate rich foods as well as foods high in B12, along with plenty of other great nutritious foods.
I also suggested to remove any possible interfering foods such as gluten, dairy, sugar, additives, caffeine, and alcohol so her immune system did not having to deal with these substances.
Debbie followed the diet and three months later was pregnant and she went full term with ease. Her baby girl was born healthy with no apparent defects.
Click for more information about Methylation and MTHFR.