Methylation is a cycle in our body that is critically important for healthy functioning. It also has the power to protect us from various diseases that are “described” in our genes. Methylation may perhaps be best known for its role in detoxification, although there are hundreds of additional body processes that rely on methylation and the compounds it produces. The methylation process can be easily disrupted by a poor diet and unhealthy lifestyle. Furthermore, many people have a genetic mutation that affects their ability to methylate properly. Part One reviews how genes are affected by methylation, the various processes that methylation is used for, and the MTHFR mutation. See Part Two for ways to support methylation through specific changes in diet and lifestyle.
Genes Can Be Turned On or Off
As you may have heard before, our genes are not our destiny. There are several health conditions that have a genetic component and thereby tend to run in families. These include depression, anxiety, heart disease, dementia, autoimmune diseases, and even cancer. But we all know of people who never seem to get the disease that all their family members are struggling with. This sort of thing actually happens all the time, on both large and small levels, usually without us ever knowing that we dodged a bullet (or took a bullet).
So what happened? Well, our environment counteracted our genetic “destiny.” In other words, a disease-causing gene was turned off and rendered inactive. Our genes don’t only predispose us to disease however. They also offer protection against disease. In this case, we’d want this gene to be turned on so it can protect us. Our environment has the power to do this. It can cause genes to turn off or on depending on our lifestyle choices. Many elements constitute our environment such as diet, exercise, sleep, stress, and amount of toxin exposure. How we choose to live each of these out defines, collectively, how healthy our environment is.
The concept that our environment can change the way our genes operate is called epigenetics. Of course, our actual genetic material does not change, but rather the way our body reads those genes changes.
What Methylation Does For Our Genes
Methylation is a process that happens in our bodies that is critically important for the healthy functioning of our genes. Methylation controls whether or not a gene is expressed (turned on or off). It is a biochemical process that, when working properly, acts in our best interest. It will turn “bad” genes off and “good” genes on. In order to do this, methylation relies on our environment to work properly. When we surround ourselves in an unhealthy environment, the methylation process fails and we get the opposite effect on our genes (“bad” genes are turned on and “good” genes are turned off). This is the starting point for disease and dysfunction; when we first start noticing that something isn’t right with our health.
Methylation And Detoxification
We are constantly exposed to various toxins and chemicals, whether through breathing them, eating them, or touching them. Small, repeated exposures to chemicals accumulate in our body and overburden our detoxification system over time.
Common toxins include:
- Pesticides on our food
- Exhaust fumes from our cars
- Arsenic, lead, and pharmaceuticals in our drinking water
- Mercury in fish and dental fillings
- BPA in our plastic
- Phthalates and parabens in our personal care products
- Ammonia, solvents, and bleach in our cleaning products
- Formaldehyde, benzene, PFOA’s, and flame retardants in our household furniture and mattresses
Other than the toxins we’re exposed to in our environment, there are compounds produced by our body that can build up and become toxic if they aren’t lowered to safer levels. Estrogen, histamine, dopamine, and homocysteine are such compounds; they are also reduced through methylation.
Methylation is one of the six main pathways of detoxification that our liver goes through. The methylation process specifically detoxifies BPA, aspirin, cannabinoids, estrogens, mercury, lead, and arsenic. Furthermore, methylation produces two compounds (sulfate and glutathione) that are relied on in two other detox pathways, thus helping to detoxify an even longer list of chemicals.
People who do not methylate properly can experience a host of toxicity symptoms. These include migraines, allergies, chronic fatigue, arthritis, sinus issues, respiratory disorders, digestive problems, poor circulation, and insomnia. Those who experience these symptoms would be helped by strengthening their methylation process.
Other Processes That Depend On Methylation
Clearly, methylation is what makes the difference in determining how healthy we will be throughout life. It supports our protective, health-promoting genes while suppressing our harmful, disease-promoting genes. Methylation also targets various toxins and harmful compounds making them less toxic and able to be eliminated from the body. In addition to altering gene expression and enhancing detoxification, methylation is critically important in hundreds of other body processes. Below are a few examples:
Methylation is necessary in the production of phosphatidylcholine, a chain of fatty acids, phosphorus, and choline. This compound makes up our bile and helps emulsify fat from our diet. We need healthy bile production, not only to break down fats but also to control bacterial overgrowth in our gut. Bile is produced in our liver and then flows into our gallbladder, so people with poor methylation often have gallbladder problems.
Brain and Muscle Health
Methylation produces an amino acid called creatine, which is needed by our muscles and our brain. Our muscles use creatine to increase lean muscle mass and reduce muscle soreness after exercise. Proper creatine levels in our brain lead to improved brain function, recognition, and memory, while reducing mental fatigue.
Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers that send signals to and from our brain. No doubt you’ve heard of several types of neurotransmitters, including dopamine, serotonin, melatonin, epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine. Collectively, these neurotransmitters help us feel clear-headed, focused, calm, and upbeat. Methylation kickstarts the process of producing these neurotransmitters using folate, one of the B vitamins (B9 to be exact). A person who struggles with depression, anxiety, brain fog, mental confusion, or attention difficulties (like ADHD) would be helped by supporting their methylation process to increase neurotransmitter production.
Healthy Stress Response
You may have heard of the two parts of a healthy stress response. When our brain perceives stress, whether it’s psychological, emotional, or physical, it activates our “fight or flight” response. This response allows us to rise to the occasion so we can tackle the stress. We can focus longer, work harder, and move faster to help us through the immediate situation. This is made possible by various stress hormones including cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline).
The other end of the stress response is “rest and digest.” It isn’t healthy to remain in a constant state of alertness and stress. For every stress event there needs to follow a relaxation event. This is when you calm down, mentally and physically relax, and begin feeling rested and peaceful.
Methylation allows both of these steps to occur, preparing you to tackle a hard work day before relaxing in the evening and enjoying a sound sleep. Poor methylation means we aren’t responding well to stress. We might have a quick temper, poor sleep, feel “wired” all the time, or perhaps get burned out.
This gene mutation has become very well known and is one of the most highly sought-after genetic lab tests ordered across the nation. And for good reason: the MTHFR mutation is the most common of all genetic mutations, with 30%-40% of Americans carrying at least one version of it.
MTHFR is an enzyme that has a very long name (methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase if you’re interested). Thank goodness for acronyms though, right?! This mighty enzyme’s job is to methylate the vitamin folate (vitamin B9). This means it attaches a methyl group onto folate, which converts folate into its active form. The active form of folate is called 5-MTHF, or methylfolate. If you’re wondering what a methyl group is, it’s one carbon atom and three hydrogen atoms. In chemistry shorthand, a methyl group is written as “CH3.”
Why is any of this important? Well, methylfolate (the active form of folate) is the compound that starts the entire methylation cycle! So if our MTHFR enzyme is not working well, then we aren’t converting enough folate into methylfolate, thus impairing our entire methylation process! But this is exactly what happens for those 30%-40% of Americans with the MTHFR mutation.
However, as we covered in the beginning, our genes are not our destiny. This means having a MTHFR mutation does not necessarily mean that your methylation process is not (or cannot) function normally. As with all of our genes, genetic mutations do not doom us to a lifetime of disease. Our environment and lifestyle choices can overcome the hindrance of genetic mutations and give us lasting health. If you have the MTHFR mutation then you’re simply in the pool with everyone else who needs to strengthen their methylation cycle. Welcome to the club!
Signs You May Have An MTHFR Mutation:
Here’s some signs that may indicate an MTHFR mutation:
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- High blood pressure
- Low white blood count (WBC) for most of your life
- Low tolerance for medications such as methotrexate, 5-fluorouracil, or phenytoin
- High homocysteine (above 12 micromoles per liter)
- High folate or high vitamin B12 levels
- Low alcohol tolerance
- Sensitivity to chemicals
- Anxiety, depression, or irritability
We’ve covered how methylation is a necessary process to maintain good health. It acts to turn “bad” genes off and “good” genes on, so that we’re protected from genetically predisposed health conditions. Furthermore, methylation is involved in hundreds of other processes to ensure things are running smoothly. This includes brain health, healthy stress responses, neurotransmitter production, detox from chemicals, and more. It is our lifestyle habits that allow methylation to perform optimally, making it far too easy to disrupt this process if we aren’t paying attention to our daily choices. Lastly, we learned that methylation depends on the MTHFR enzyme to convert the vitamin folate into its active form (methylfolate). Those with a genetic mutation of their MTHFR enzyme have a compromised methylation cycle and will need to take steps to strengthen it.
Now that we’ve got a solid background on what methylation is and why it’s so important to our health, we need to know what to do to keep it running smoothly. Check out Part Two of this discussion! We talk about how to support our methylation cycle and the key nutrients we need each day.
Last week we talked about what the methylation cycle was and why it is critical for healthy functioning. Methylation maximizes a number of body processes. It has the power to activate your protective genes as well as deactivate your harmful genes. It is also one of the six detoxification pathways that our liver goes through to neutralize and eliminate everyday toxin exposure. Methylation is involved in hundreds of other processes including bile production, cognitive and mental health, stress regulation, and more. Unfortunately, our ability to methylate is easily suppressed and rendered ineffective when we don’t supply our bodies with the right nutrients and healthy habits. On top of that, roughly one third of Americans have a mutation in a particular enzyme (called MTHFR). This mutation prevents their methylation cycle from working properly.
To learn more about the methylation cycle, read our Part One blog, found here.
For part two of our discussion, we’ll launch into the reasons behind a poorly working methylation cycle, as well as the action steps that we can take to improve our methylation.
Our Bodies Need Our Help
Too often, we take our health for granted. We mistakenly believe that the internal workings of our body is a perfect system, designed to hum along without a glitch until we hit old age and things start falling apart. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Our bodies want to be a perfect system but they can only behave as well as our ability to care for them. Treat them badly and feed them the wrong food and you’ll get a body that starts misbehaving. When it comes to our health, we are our own worst enemy. And the old age thing is also incorrect. Older people aren’t supposed to struggle with crippling diseases or cancer. Their body has worked hard for several decades to counteract the insults we have given it over the years. But there comes a point when it simply can’t keep up with the onslaught of insults. At this point, the best it can do is slow down and become inefficient. And the worst it can do is give in to the harmful stuff, thus developing disease. The point that our body becomes inefficient or gives in can vary from person to person. Oftentimes it happens in our old age, but other times it happens much earlier, even as early as our 20’s!
How To Harm Our Methylation Cycle
One of the ways that our bodies can be inefficient is through a broken methylation cycle. As with every cycle in our body, our methylation cycle doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s influence is far-reaching and impacts other processes down the line. An inefficient methylation cycle directly correlates to an inefficient detox process, the activation of disease-causing genes, and the improper functioning of hundreds of other processes that depend upon methylation.
Unfortunately, many people are well-trained in harming their methylation cycle. In fact, it really takes no effort at all, which is why it’s so easy to do. Here’s some of the main ways we block our ability to methylate:
- Consuming folic acid
- Lack of necessary nutrients
- Pro-inflammatory diet
- Oxidative stress
- Ongoing mental stress
- Ongoing exposure to heavy metals and other chemicals
If we’re not paying attention to the way we live our lives, all (or most) of the above list will occur without us even trying. If we keep this up, our bodies (and our health) will slow down.
How To Fix Our Methylation Cycle
It is clear that our bodies have a breaking point. But we don’t know where that point is in time. The best way to retain (and regain) your health for as long as possible is to change the way we eat and live every day. It is the small, repeated behaviors practiced over the years that have the most negative impact on our health. These repeated behaviors put excess strain throughout our body, touching every cell and organ and biochemical process, including our methylation cycle. There’s no need for our bodies to battle uphill. Let’s equal the playing field and give ourselves the best chance at a healthy life. So what do we have to do to turn things around?
Ditch The Folic Acid
Folic acid has been added to all refined, gluten-containing grains in the United States, including cereal grains, pasta, and grain-based flours (eg wheat flour). It’s also found in enriched white rice as well as cornmeal. This was an effort by the FDA in 1998 to help prevent certain birth defects in newborns, such as neural tube defects. This wasn’t the worst move by the FDA since it has indeed lowered the prevalence of neural tube defects. However, consuming folic acid does come at a cost.
Let’s take a step back. Vitamin B9 is best known as folate. Folate is the natural form of vitamin B9 and is found in green leafy vegetables, asparagus, beets, brussel sprouts, broccoli, avocado, beans, sunflower seeds, citrus fruits, and most whole grains. Once in our bodies, folate must be converted into its active form before it can be usable by our body. The active form of folate is called methylfolate, and our methylation cycle will not work without it. In fact, the cycle requires enough methylfolate to even get started.
Folic acid, on the other hand, is an artificial mimic of folate. It is created in a lab and closely resembles folate enough to enter our body cells. Specifically, folic acid binds to the folate receptors that are on the outside of our cells, thereby blocking those receptors from reaching the real version (folate). If folate is prevented from entering our cells, then it cannot be converted into methylfolate (the active form of folate). Without methylfolate, methylation cannot happen.
Eating more foods that contain folic acid (including folic acid supplements and medications) and eating less whole foods that contain folate will block your methylation cycle. Turn this around by choosing foods that contain folate (listed above) and strongly limiting foods that contain folic acid. When buying supplements, make sure that “folate” is listed. Avoid all supplements that list folic acid.
Get The Right Nutrients
Every biochemical process that our body performs requires specific nutrients to keep the process going. The methylation cycle is no different. It requires enough B vitamins, glutathione, magnesium, and protein in order to initiate and maintain its cycle. Each of these nutrients are found in a variety of foods and must be eaten regularly to replenish your ongoing methylation.
Riboflavin (vitamin B2): liver, lamb, wild salmon, spinach, almonds, mushrooms.
Pyridoxine (vitamin B6): pork, beef, poultry, salmon, oats, chickpeas, pistachios, avocados, bananas, potatoes including sweet potatoes, acorn squash, and spinach.
Folate (vitamin B9): Food sources of folate were discussed in the previous section but I’ll repeat it here: green leafy vegetables, asparagus, beets, brussel sprouts, broccoli, avocado, beans, sunflower seeds, citrus fruits, and most whole grains. Avoid all fortified foods that contain the synthetic form of folate, called folic acid.
Cobalamin (vitamin B12): grass-fed beef, salmon, clams, mussels, crab, eggs, cheese, and Greek yogurt. Foods fortified with B12 contain the synthetic version of this vitamin which is inactive and less efficiently used by the body. Vegans will need to take B12 supplements. If you’re deficient in B12, then methylfolate (active folate) is trapped and cannot be used. The methylation cycle then comes to a halt.
Magnesium: dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, fish, beans, avocados, and whole grains. Some people may choose to take a magnesium supplement to ensure consistent intake.
Glutathione: Glutathione is your master antioxidant, found in every cell in your body. It’s involved in detoxification, immune system support, preventing cell damage, reducing chronic diseases, and much more. As it relates to methylation, this antioxidant (along with protein) helps transport vitamin B12 into your cells where it can be used. If you have low glutathione, your body cannot use B12, thus inhibiting your methylation process.
Glutathione is produced by our body, although levels are easily affected by toxins, poor nutrition, stress, age, and even a poor methylation cycle. Glutathione production can be increased by eating sulfur-based foods. These include, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, arugula, kale, mustard greens, collard greens, bok choy, garlic, and onions. Sulfur-foods are also found in meat, eggs, dairy, oats, and legumes. Taking N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC) is also an effective way to increase glutathione levels.
Protein: all meats, fish, eggs, dairy products, soy products (must be organic), beans, broccoli, spinach, brussel sprouts, collard greens, nuts and nut butter, hemp seeds, and quinoa.
Activate Your B Vitamin Supplements
The methylation cycle requires all of the above nutrients in a constant supply. With the exception of protein, none of these nutrients are stored in the body and so must be replenished each day. The best way to get any nutrient is through eating whole food sources. In many cases, a person requires higher amounts of certain nutrients in order to return them to health or jumpstart particular body processes. This is the case with our methylation cycle. If we have not been consciously caring for our health, nor been avoiding harmful foods and exposures over the years, chances are that our methylation process has slowed down. This means we are low in at least some of the nutrients listed above. Our nutrient intake must be eaten consistently and in the right amounts, which can be hard to do even when eating the right foods. This is where supplements can help.
As discussed previously, there are active (natural) forms and inactive (synthetic) forms of B vitamins. If you are taking B vitamin supplements, it is critical to take their active forms only. Most B vitamin supplements in grocery stores will be in synthetic forms, however, if you head to a natural food store, like Natural Grocers, or order them online (our patients get discounts on Fullscript!), you’ll find higher quality supplements.
Always look at the ingredients list when purchasing food and supplements! B Complex supplements are no different. The ingredients list (supplement facts) on the B Complex bottle will tell you whether or not they use active or inactive forms.
Active (natural) forms of B vitamins will have the following (long) names:
- Riboflavin – 5’ – Phosphate (vitamin B2, riboflavin)
- Pyridoxal – 5’ – Phosphate (vitamin B6)
- Methylfolate, or 5-MTHF (vitamin B9, folate)
- Methylcobalamin (vitamin B12)
If you do not see these long names listed on the supplement facts then the vitamins were made synthetically and are in their inactive forms. Do not purchase the bottle! Supplement companies will not announce that their supplements are synthetic, so it’s up to you as the consumer to know what to look for and avoid sales gimmicks.
You might be wondering, how bad can synthetic supplements be? Well, synthetic supplements aren’t only ineffective in our body, but many can be harmful! Making synthetic forms of vitamins often means using harmful ingredients. For example, the synthetic form of vitamin B6 is made from formaldehyde and petroleum ester! Furthermore, vitamin B12 is synthetically made by using fermented cyanide and cobalt. Other ingredients used to make synthetic vitamins include oil secretions from sheep, palm oil, coal tar, acetone, ammonia, and isobutyraldehyde. These ingredients are highly processed at best and downright toxic at worst! Always read the supplement facts label and only purchase supplements from reputable companies.
Eat To Lower Inflammation and Oxidative Stress
Chronic inflammation and oxidative stress go hand-in-hand. They each cause (and perpetuate) the other. Eating pro-inflammatory foods leads to chronic inflammation. Foods that cause inflammation include those high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, vegetable oils, and other processed ingredients. These harmful foods also produce high amounts of free radicals (unstable oxygen molecules) that damage our cells. The more free radicals we have, the higher our oxidative stress. Glutathione (mentioned previously), as well as other antioxidants, fight off free radicals. Antioxidants come from our diet and are mainly found in vegetables, berries, and citrus fruits. Eating inflammatory foods, therefore, causes a vicious cycle of inflammation, free radicals, oxidative stress, and low antioxidants, that all work together to compromise our methylation cycle.
Eating a whole foods diet comprised mostly of plant foods with some animal protein on the side, will provide the nutrients you need for methylation. Be sure to focus on those foods listed above that specifically support the methylation cycle. Whole foods are anti-inflammatory and do not create excess free radicals. Eating in this way will lower chronic inflammation and oxidative stress.
Address Your Mental Stress
Stress, especially mental stress, can be the death of us. This may sound hard to believe but the effects of mental stress (also called psychological stress), wreck havoc on our body. We release stress hormones and our brain operates on high alert. High stress impacts our gut bacteria, harms our mental health, weakens our immune system, increases body weight, and damages our heart. It is a common underlying cause of chronic disease including diabetes, obesity, arthritis, cardiovascular diseases, depression, anxiety, autoimmune diseases, and even cancer. With all the mayhem that mental stress causes, it’s no surprise that our methylation cycle is also harmed by high stress.
Next to eating whole foods, lowering your mental stress is the most impactful change you can make for your health. Stress can be lowered in many ways depending on the source of your particular triggers. Some examples of ways to lower stress include:
- Physical activity
- Getting outside
- Enjoyable hobbies
- Relaxation (stretching, yoga, meditation, gratitude journaling, etc)
- Restorative sleep
- Breaking up large tasks into small, manageable steps
- Surrounding yourself with supportive people
- Simplify and declutter your living and working space
- Be kind to yourself
- Therapy to address past trauma
Avoid Heavy Metals and Chemical Exposures
Exposure to heavy metals and other environmental toxins come at us from all angles, every day. Small, repeated exposures accumulate in our body, damage our cells, impact our cognition, alter our hormones, slow down our detoxification pathways, dampen our immune system, and give us all sorts of symptoms from fatigue, headaches, brain fog, poor skin and hair, weight gain, and much more.
Toxins are present in our fruits and vegetables, fish, dairy products, water, car exhaust, dental fillings, plastic containers, cleaning products, personal care products, carpets, furniture, mattresses, indoor air, and more. Our body has a limit on how many toxins it can process on any given day. If our regular habits expose ourselves to high levels of toxins, our detox pathways get overwhelmed and do not eliminate toxins effectively. Recall that the methylation process is part of our detoxification pathway. If you have poor detoxification, you have poor methylation.
In our world it is impossible to avoid all sources of toxins. They are found around every corner of life. But we can significantly reduce our exposure to toxins. Here’s how:
- Replace plastic containers with glass containers
- Avoid microwaving in plastic
- Replace plastic wrap with wax paper, silicone covers, or rubber lids
- Replace non-stick cookware with stainless steel, glass, or cast iron
- Purchase organic fruits and vegetables
- Avoid high-mercury fish (farmed salmon, tuna, swordfish, grouper, mackerel, tilefish, sea-bass, halibut, crab, lobster, mahi mahi, perch, and cod)
- Avoid all air fresheners and dryer sheets
- Replace mercury fillings with composite resin fillings
- Filter your drinking water to remove heavy metals, fluoride, nitrates, pesticides, industrial pollutants, pharmaceuticals, etc.
- Avoid fragrances, parabens, phthalates, and SLS in your personal care products
- Purchase a HEPA air filter for your bedroom
- Switch to an organic mattress
- Avoid particle board or press board furniture. Stick with real wood
- Purchase non-toxic cleaning products (see ingredients to avoid here!)
Our methylation cycle needs our ongoing help and support in order to function properly. Taking care of our bodies requires awareness, commitment, and self control. However difficult this may seem, our ability to methylate properly depends upon our daily healthy choices. Methylation is easily interrupted by synthetic nutrients, inflammatory foods, oxidative stress, mental stress, and daily toxin exposure. We can overcome these insults by changing the way we eat and live, not only when we feel poorly, but every day of our lives. Supporting our methylation (and our overall health) requires active participation. Let’s commit to making these positive changes!
We’ve talked a lot about organic foods and the importance of minimizing our exposure to pesticides. Doing so will reduce our overall exposure to toxins and help decrease the toxic burden we all carry. This is fairly straightforward, but there is much more to this story. There are more toxins in our lives than just pesticides and there are more routes of exposure than just fruits and vegetables. These toxins enter our environment, affecting everything that lives and grows, including ourselves. Let’s talk about what these toxins are, where they’re found, and the harm they do to us if we don’t protect ourselves. We’ll also cover the steps we can take to limit our exposure to toxins.
Common Toxins In Our Daily Lives
Scientists have identified the classes of toxins we, as humans, are all exposed to in daily life. These ubiquitous toxins are dubbed “persistent pollutants” because they are persistent in the environment and take years to breakdown. This means they don’t just hang around nuclear power plants or refineries (even though some of them may have originated in such places). They have entered the daily environments where the average person lives their lives, doing usual tasks.
Here are the persistent pollutants. There are nine classes of toxins found in people living in industrialized nations. Some are also found in people living in remote places.
- Poisonous petroleum-derived chemical
- Byproduct of making pesticides and using chlorine industrially
- Byproduct of burning plastic
- The most toxic man-made chemical ever known
Volatile compounds (solvents):
- Found in air fresheners, cleaning products, dry-cleaned clothes, perfumes, carpeting, new cabinetry, new paint, and glue for particle board furniture
- A known carcinogen
- Found in Styrofoam
- Chemical pesticide banned in 1977 after an expose book was published (Silent Spring)
- Still made here in the US but shipped out to other countries for their crops
- Finds its way back to the US through agricultural imports from those countries
- PCB’s (polychlorinated biphenyls)
- Banned in the 1970’s
- Still found in humans, animals, fish, and soil around the world
- Passed onto offspring, making it globally pervasive
- Highest levels found in butter and farmed Atlantic salmon
- Chlorinated pesticides
- Found in farm-raised fish, and conventional beef and dairy products
- Passed onto offspring
- PBDE (flame retardants)
- Found in foam padding, mattresses, draperies, upholstery, rugs, small appliances, computers, and TV’s
- Found on conventionally grown fruits and vegetables
- Degrades the quality of soil for future crops
- Found in plastics, toys, vinyl flooring, food packaging, detergents, lubricating oils, pharmaceuticals, and personal care products
- Byproduct of combustion
- Car exhaust, cigarettes, smokestacks
PAH’s (poly aromatic hydrocarbons):
- A byproduct produced when burning coal, oil, gas, wood, garbage, or tobacco
- Released into meat when cooked at high temperatures
- Found in large fish and dental fillings
- Passed onto offspring
- Commonly found in groundwater and certain types of rice
- Found in air, soil, indoor dust, drinking water, imported cosmetics, old paint, old plumbing, and some jewelry and toys
- Primary exposure is cigarette smoke
- Also found in foods grown from contaminated soil
- soy foods, cereals, legumes, and starchy vegetables
BPA (bisphenol A):
- Found in plastics, plastic wrap, and can linings
- Transferred to food through direct contact and microwaving/heating
When Are We Exposed to Toxins?
Some of these toxins you may have heard of and some of them might be new. But when are we exposed to them? Contained in the list, above, are some descriptions of where each toxin is found. Man-made chemicals, overall, are found just about everywhere. We encounter them everyday in many forms:
- Car exhaust
- Indoor air
- Drinking water
- Soil in our backyards and gardens
- Non-organic foods
- Meat, fish, and dairy products
- Plastics and plastic wrap
- Paint and paint fumes
- New car smell
- Perfumes and any scented candle, soap, air fresheners, or cleaning spray
- Dryer sheets
- Particle board furniture
- Electronics, small appliances
- Foam mattress pads, drapes, upholstery, carpeting
- Non-stick pans (Teflon)
- Household cleaning products
- Personal care products
The inventions and ingenuity of man has certainly reached every corner of our lives. In most ways, such advancements have propelled us forward in enhancing our lives. What we never banked on was the negative consequences that came with it.
How Toxins Harm Us
While many chemicals are manufactured for a purpose, others are unintended byproducts of manufacturing (like chemical fumes). Some chemicals have been banned over the years, but still remain in the environment and, by extension, our food supply (like PCB’s). Regardless of how they got here or whether they are still allowed, toxic chemicals are found in everyone. And they cause major harm.
The effect of all this is that we, the unsuspecting public, have become the guinea pigs of these chemicals. The safety tests are underway and we’re the test subjects. We don’t know all the damage that these chemicals can cause, but we are fast learning simply by studying ourselves. What sort of damage are we talking about?
Small Symptoms Aren’t “Normal”
Our body gives us small warning signs of toxicity symptoms long before they become a big problem. Unfortunately, we dismiss many of these symptoms, calling them “normal.” After all, everybody has allergies, right? While this is true (50 million people in the US have allergies), we must remember that “normal” isn’t the same as “healthy.” Everyone has toxins too, making it “normal” for people. But this is far from healthy.
Rather than dismissing “normal” symptoms, take heed to what your body is telling you. That something is wrong.
Common symptoms of low-grade toxicity include:
- Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat
- Dry or itchy skin
- Hair loss
- Dry cough
- Brain fog
- Poor memory
- Learning disabilities
- Sensitivity to certain smells
- Muscle aches
- Being overweight
- Hormone imbalance
- Chronic infections
While toxin exposure can cause all of these symptoms in varying degrees, the reverse is not always true. Having these symptoms does not necessarily mean that they were caused by toxins. There are many possible causes. If you have any number of these symptoms, it is important to uncover the reason behind them.
Diseases and Dysfunction
Let’s consider just one class of toxins: Organophosphate pesticides. These are the pesticides sprayed on non-organic fruits and vegetables. Aside from killing pests in the field, they also kill brain cells mix-up synapses in children and fetuses. They are very potent toxins to our mitochondria. When our mitochondria become damaged or dysfunctional, a host of health issues arises: fatigue, weakness, seizures, cognitive disabilities, diabetes, hearing and vision loss, and poor functioning of the liver, kidney, and gastrointestinal tract. All of these health issues can occur from just one class of chemicals! We carry many more chemicals in our bodies than that, and their cumulative effect is yet unstudied (but we know it’s not good).
A study done in 1992 looked at the blood and urine of nine US adults. They looked for 210 toxins known to be persistent pollutants, and found 167 of those toxins present in the adults. Of these toxins, 53 have been linked with cancer, 62 are toxic to the brain and central nervous system, 58 are toxic to our hormones, and 55 are toxic to our immune system, often leading to autoimmune diseases and a weakened immune response. The chemicals in our environment have made us into a toxic soup, putting us at risk of a myriad of diseases and ailments.
That 1992 study was just on adults. Surely babies are a clean slate. It turns out, babies are born with toxins! Toxins are passed from mother to child. Studies have tested the cord blood of newborns and show that babies born in US hospitals already had an average of 200 toxins in their bodies! This included chemicals known to cause cancer, chemicals that damage the nervous system, and chemicals that lead to developmental problems. Nobody is safe from the onslaught of toxins, not even the unborn.
All these diseases we mentioned (autoimmune disease, cognitive issues, cancer, and hormone disruption) don’t all just happen suddenly. These conditions slowly develop in the background of our lives, steadily getting worse over time.
It’s the cumulative effect of this multiple toxin build-up that causes the most harm. Our bodies can handle some level of toxins and are efficient at eliminating them, but the pace at which we’re exposed to man-made chemicals can quickly overwhelm our body’s ability to handle them. If these toxins are not eliminated at the pace they are coming in, they begin accumulating in our fat cells over time. But storing them out-of-sight doesn’t solve the problem. We each have our own limit and can handle only so much exposure before our health is compromised and we notice something is wrong. This usually occurs more as we age, since we’ve had more years for toxins to accumulate. Luckily, we aren’t victims here. Later on, we will share ways to reduce toxin exposure, thereby helping to lower your risk of these diseases.
How Did We Get Here?
If these chemicals can cause so many health issues, why were they even allowed to be made? Shouldn’t harmful toxins be banned? Let’s look at the backstory.
Well, with each passing year, about 2,000 new chemicals enter our world through new products and technologies. In the United States, only a fraction of new chemicals are tested for safety. There are about 85,000 registered chemicals used on a daily basis in this country, about 250 of them have gone through safety testing. Despite the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), put in place in 1976, the EPA had little ability to identify and screen out toxic chemicals as they entered the market. This was because the toxicity data of each new chemical was provided by the manufacturers who made them. The completeness and accuracy of these reports could not be verified and had to be taken on good faith. Not only that, but roughly 60,000 chemicals already on the market by 1976 were grandfathered in and not subject to testing.
In 2016, then-president Obama signed into law a new chemical safety act, the first overhaul to the TSCA in 40 years. This new law allows the EPA to ban unsafe chemicals, both new and existing, as well as require more testing on new chemicals. The EPA must also test and rank existing chemicals according to their level of risk. While this is a step in the right direction, it will take about 7 years to review it takes about 7 years to test each chemical and another 5 years for it to be completely removed from our products. Given that we have tens of thousands of existing chemicals to test, this process will take centuries to complete.
There is no feasible way to quickly test 85,000 chemicals within anybody’s lifetime, much less to do this while addressing all the new chemicals that come in each year. It is clear that we cannot rely on industry or government to protect us from toxins. So, while the EPA is over their head with such a monumental task, we also have a job to do. Thankfully, it isn’t as overwhelming as theirs.
Stop The Onslaught
As inevitable as it is to be exposed to toxins throughout our lives, it is not inevitable that we get sick because of them. Changing how we eat, drink, and clean will go a long way to lessening how many toxins we are exposed to. Lowering our exposure will also lower the toxic burden built up in our bodies, giving our detox processes a stronger chance at neutralizing and eliminating them. There are multiple ways to do this. The following list contains ways to lower exposure from persistent pollutants. Those who know they have a high level of a specific chemical in their body (mercury exposure is common) should take additional steps to target the removal of that chemical.
- Purchase organic produce, specifically from the Dirty Dozen list put out by the Environmental Working Group each year
- Purchase organic eggs and dairy products. While not sprayed with pesticides, DDT and PCBs are found in the soil of conventionally grown feed for cows and chickens
- Eat low-mercury fish (wild-caught Alaskan salmon, tilapia, sardines, haddock, flounder, catfish, and others)
- Purchase grass-fed beef and organic poultry
- Avoid foods that harm your detox processes: sugar, processed foods, refined carbs, and processed vegetable oils, and wheat products
- Eat foods that boost your detox process: green leafy vegetables, cruciferous vegetables (particularly broccoli), green tea, and berries
- Take supplements that support detox: B complex, magnesium, vitamin D, and fish oil
- Replace plastic containers and water bottles with glass ones
- Filter your water. Purchase a filter that can remove the specific contaminants found in your local water supply. Public reports are available from your city
- Purchase clean personal care products and cosmetics
- Use simple ingredients for household cleaning (Bon Ami, Dr. Bronners, vinegar, baking soda, thieves oil, etc)
- Choose hard-wood flooring in your home
- Avoid particle board furniture wherever possible
- Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter
- Stop smoking
Toxins are everywhere these days, whether purposely created to improve our lives or unintentionally produced as a waste product. Whatever their source, toxins enter our environment and remain in our soil, water, and air. They are called persistent pollutants because they are found everywhere and take years to breakdown. Animals, plants, and humans ingest them, whether directly or indirectly. Once there, they accumulate over time, harming health and even passing along to offspring. We are not aware of all the harmful effects of these toxins but we are slowly discovering them as they show up in people. While it is not possible to avoid all sources of toxin exposure, you can certainly make a large impact on reducing your exposure each day. It’s time to fight back and reclaim your health for yourself and future generations.
Our genes tell us a lot about who we are and of who we can become. After all, a person’s genetics explain basically everything about them: their hair color, their cleft chin, their propensity towards car sickness, and even why they sneeze in sunlight. Some genes are easily seen and express themselves immediately (like a cleft chin), while others are hidden away and lying dormant until or unless they are switched on (like macular degeneration). These types of genes are not our destiny but rather a measure of probability. And as with any probability game, there is always the chance that something won’t happen. Genes don’t always express themselves.
Our primary focus for this blog is a certain gene called the COMT gene, but before we launch into it and why it’s so important, we first need a little bit of background information. No discussion of genes is complete without recognizing the importance of another factor: the environment.
Nature Vs. Nurture
On a cellular level, genes tell a story of probability. Your genetic story describes how your body will gravitate towards certain outcomes if given the chance. These outcomes affect your health either positively or negatively.
When anyone discusses how genetics influences our health (and vice versa), they are talking about nature versus nurture. “Nature” refers to genetic inheritance which we receive from our parents. Our genetic makeup is set within our DNA and can be passed along to our offspring. Genes dictate not only whether you inherit your father’s large nose, but also more subtle characteristics seen only on the cellular level. They reveal your propensity towards getting certain diseases, converting nutrients into energy, eliminating toxins, handling stress, and much more.
“Nurture,” on the other hand, is the influence of environmental factors that impact our life after our genes are already determined. In essence, “nurture” is anything that happens to us after we are first conceived. Examples of nurture include the effect of alcohol on fetal development, traumatic or supportive childhood experiences, intact or broken families, level of physical activity, healthy or unhealthy diets, amount of exposure to toxins, and much more.
This all seems very straightforward, but let’s look at the relationship between them. Many people believe that our genes are our destiny. That there is no point in trying to work around something that is ingrained in our DNA (quite literally). However, the truth is that, while our genes are indeed set in stone, the expression of our genes can be changed. In other words, our genes carry instructions that tell our body to function in a certain way (this cannot be changed), but those instructions can be turned off; their expression can be changed. Genes (nature) can be active or inactive depending on external factors (nurture). The study of this is called epigenetics.
Here are two examples of epigenetics; how hard-wired genes don’t always follow their own instructions. A child may have inherited the gene for perfect pitch (the ability to identify a musical note simply by hearing it). And yes, there is a gene for this! However, without musical training, that child will not possess this ability. Another example is if a child inherits the genes for tall height but perhaps lives in poor conditions with little access to healthy food. Without proper nutrients, the child may not achieve the height that his genes would have allowed him to. Epigenetics shows us that simply possessing certain genes (genotype) does not mean that a person will display that gene (phenotype). Genetic instructions are not always followed.
So what does all of this have to do with COMT? And what even is COMT? Earlier, we mentioned that genes can influence how well we eliminate toxins. Our ability to do this is not outwardly noticeable when everything is working well. However, we definitely notice when things are not working well! Examples of the genes involved in eliminating toxins include cytochrome P450 genes, glutathione S-transferase genes, and the COMT genes. These genes are responsible for eliminating several types of toxins from our body, including pesticides, air pollution, estrogen, mold, and even stress hormones!
These genes come in different variations but everyone has them (in one variation or another). It’s these variations that can cause problems (when they are turned on).
COMT genes, in particular, are responsible for making an enzyme that clears away certain neurotransmitters from our body. These neurotransmitters are dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. Collectively, these neurotransmitters are called catecholamines and are important factors in our behavior, stress response, mood, pain tolerance, cognition, and even cardiovascular disease!
Our bodies produce these catecholamines in the right amounts and then remove them from the body so they don’t accumulate and cause damage. This is a normal process. But when we have a variation in our COMT gene, we are unable to break these neurotransmitters down, thus causing them to build up to higher levels than normal. High levels of these neurotransmitters impacts how well we handle stress.
Symptoms of Met/Met Gene Variant
About 20%-30% of caucasians of European ancestry carry the Met/Met variation of the COMT gene. These Met/Met carriers are three to four times slower at removing catecholamines than the other COMT variation, Val/Val. This slow removal process (detox process) results in higher levels of dopamine and cortisol, and can cause HPA axis dysfunction. During low-stress situations, those with the Met/Met variation often have better focus and memory. However, once under pressure, stress hormones rise and they cannot break them down quickly, so they easily become overwhelmed. This translates to a state of elevated stress as well as less resilience against stress. This variation also experiences strongly felt emotions, whether positive or negative.
Having elevated cortisol and thus elevated stress is detrimental to our long-term health and something that those with the Met/Met variation need to be aware of. Stress and high cortisol levels can cause adrenal dysfunction and HPA axis dysfunction. They also bring about other symptoms including poor sleep quality, disrupted circadian rhythm, gut inflammation, food sensitivities, and blood sugar imbalances. Constant high stress is nothing to take lightly! Those with the Met/Met variation of the COMT gene need to be careful of how they handle stress and take steps to reduce it whenever possible. The Met/Met variation also leads to increased levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. These elevations lead to symptoms such as, digestive issues, nervousness, hyperactivity, mania, increased blood pressure, headaches, heart palpitations, anxiety, and increased sweating. That’s a long list of symptoms! What can those with Met/Met variants do to help themselves?
What To Do About It
Recall our earlier discussion of how a person’s environment and lifestyle can alter their gene expression. Well, the Met/Met variant is no different. It can be balanced out to have less of an impact in your life given the right environment. Since those with this variant have slow COMT function (slow metabolizers of catecholamines), it’s important to support our COMT function. Let’s see what this looks like:
1. Supplements: The COMT gene is part of the methylation process of phase II detoxification. Methylation requires a methyl group (chemical compound) in order to function. A special compound called SAMe provides that methyl group. SAMe is produced by our bodies and is also available as a supplement. Met/Met variants can be greatly helped by taking SAMe as a supplement. Other ways to support the methylation process is to increase your magnesium as well as your B vitamins, particularly B2, B6, B9, and B12.
2. Foods to eat: Met/Met variants do better with foods that remove estrogen from the body since excess estrogen further slows down the COMT gene. Such foods include flaxseeds as well as cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage. Supporting liver health will further remove estrogen compounds. This includes taking bitter herbs like milk thistle and dandelion, as well as eating citrus fruits. Lastly, focus on phytonutrient-rich foods that don’t contain catechols. These include grapefruit, onions, parsley, and celery.
3. Foods to avoid: The Met/Met gene variation is slow to remove catecholamines from the body. Thus, it’s best to avoid foods that increase catecholamines. Avoid foods high in the amino acids, tyrosine, tryptophan, and phenylalanine. These mainly encompass poultry, beef, fish, and cheese. These amino acids are also found in several seeds, nuts, beans, soy, chocolate, blueberries, coffee, and eggs. Further, several flavonoids (a phytonutrient) contain catechols and should be avoided. These flavonoids are found in green tea, capers, cilantro, apples, and berries. Lastly, caffeine and alcohol can trigger the release of catecholamines (the last thing you want). So it’s best to avoid these substances as well.
4. Exercise and fasting: Exercise further increases catecholamines. A person with the Met/Met variant already has increased catecholamines, so they would be better served to limit strenuous or prolonged exercise. Going without food for long periods also increases catecholamines. For this reason it’s a good idea to eat regularly and maintain blood sugar levels.
5. Avoid stress: As discussed, the Met/Met variant is slow to remove stress hormones resulting in less resilience in stressful situations. This means stress feels stronger, lasts longer, and does more damage to our body than those without this variant. It is imperative in this case to avoid or reduce stress wherever possible by practicing stress reduction techniques.
The Importance of Genomics Testing
Most people don’t know which genes they possess so they don’t know which of their genes are being hurt or helped by their environment. People often live their lives without thinking of long-term consequences. And certainly without thinking of genetic consequences. Only when something goes awry do we look back at our choices and lifestyle and wonder what led us here. Oftentimes the underlying cause of symptoms has a basis in our genetic expression. Something in our environment and lifestyle has flipped the genetic switch. Sometimes it’s a protective gene that has been turned off or it’s a harmful gene that has been turned on. But either way, something happened that jump started a downward spiral in our health and we’re just now taking notice. But what if we can take notice before it spirals out of control? To do this we need to know what genes we carry and which ones put us at risk for health conditions or impaired functioning.
Genomics testing answers these questions. Such tests have grown in popularity and affordability over the years. Perhaps the most well-known genomics test is 23andMe where a person can get a complete picture of their genetic data and risk factors for about $200. Check them out here. 23andMe provides a detailed report of your genetic data. Our team at CustomCare Nutrition can translate your report into a customized plan for supporting your health despite at-risk genetic factors. The COMT gene is only one of over a thousand genes that influence our health and are described in your genetic report. Give us a call to discuss your report today!
Since the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have discussed several ways to protect and strengthen our immune system. From washing our hands and getting enough sleep, to eating antioxidant-rich foods and taking certain supplements. In functional medicine, we recognize that all body systems are connected. Improving the function of one body system will also improve the function of other body systems (for example, there is ongoing research on the strong connection between our digestive system and brain health; two very different systems but quite integrally connected).
Another such connection exists between our immune system and our detoxification processes (lymphatic system). Strengthening our immune system is accomplished in a number of ways, including bolstering our bodies’ detox pathways.
What Do I Need to Detox From?
Detoxing isn’t just meant for substance abuse addicts. If you live in a Westernized country in the 21st century then there are plenty of harmful toxins you’re being exposed to. These substances need to be neutralized and expelled from our body by using our detoxification pathways.
What sort of toxins are you being exposed to?
These are toxins that come from outside our body (they originate externally). It’s impossible to completely avoid all exotoxins, but there are ways to decrease your total exposure to them.
–Heavy metals: found in tap water, cookware, personal care products, and make-up
–Pesticides: sprayed on agricultural crops and found in the produce aisle of grocery stores, as well as in other foods that are made from fruits and vegetables (jams, tofu, corn chips, wheat products, etc)
–Phthalates and parabens: synthetic ingredients used in cleaning supplies, personal care products, and make-up
–Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s): toxic gasses that are emitted by carpet, furniture, paint, and cleaning products
–PCB’s: highly toxic chemicals that were banned in the 1970’s but are still rampant everywhere because they do not breakdown
–Mold: exposure is very common and comes through mold spores on food or mold growth in homes and offices
External toxins aren’t the only type of toxins to be aware of. Endotoxins are toxins that originate internally, coming from inside our body.
–Yeast Overgrowth: yeast overgrowths, such as a candida infection, produce toxins such as acetaldehyde which add to your toxin burden
–Gut Bacteria: our large intestine holds trillions of bacteria, both helpful and harmful. When this delicate balance is interrupted, the harmful bacteria create a toxic environment for our digestive system
–Hidden Infections: underlying infections can overwhelm and exhaust your immune system when left untreated. These include infections such as Lyme disease and Epstein Barr.
— Medications: whether or not the medication is an appropriate treatment for your health condition, all medications contain countless chemicals, binders, and fillers that contribute to your toxin burden
How Do I Know If I Have a High Toxin Burden?
Your toxin burden is the accumulation, over time, of all the different toxins you’re exposed to. Our immune systems and detoxification pathways can process and expel a finite amount of toxins at any given time. However, they cannot keep up with our ever-growing toxic burden when it exceeds their ability to handle. When our “toxin bucket” overflows, so-to-speak, our bodies develop all kinds of symptoms in response to an overburdened toxic load:
–Memory loss or concentration difficulties
–Sinus congestion and allergies
Having an overflowing toxic bucket slows down our detox pathways and our immune system. They simply cannot keep up with demand and become weakened and less responsive. When this happens, our ongoing exposure to toxins keeps building up in our bodies without being able to get rid of them. Secondly, our bodies become more susceptible to infections and illness.
So what can we do? Fortunately, there are ways to reduce your toxic burden and prevent your bucket from overflowing. This is done in two ways: avoiding toxin exposure in the first place, and bolstering your detoxification process to better handle toxins.
Avoid Toxin Exposure
Now, we cannot avoid 100% of all toxins out there. To do so would require not breathing, eating, or living with modern appliances. But we can minimize our toxin exposure, thus reducing the number of toxins we contact each day. This will prevent our detox and immune systems from being overloaded and help them to handle toxins effectively. Here are some ways to lower your toxin exposure:
–Switch to clean, plant-based, and/or organic products: This includes personal care products, make-up, fragrances, cleaning products, soaps and detergents, and hair products. Check out the Environmental Working Group (EWG) website for a visual list of clean products, here.
–Filter your air and water: Indoor pollution is well known to being 10 times more polluted than air outdoors. Our furniture, paint, and carpets off-gas harmful toxins that we breathe in every hour we spend indoors. High-quality HEPA air filters will bind to these microscopic VOC’s and remove them from the air. Likewise, tap water often contains harmful toxins depending on where you live. Click on your state and select your city to discover the types of contaminants found in your water. Another resource is: https://mytapwater.org/. There are several types of water filters you can place in your home or office, whether that’s under the sink or by using a water pitcher filter. Not all filters filter out the contaminant you want, so read about which filter is best for your location.
–Eat an anti-inflammatory diet: All food performs one of two actions in your body. It either contributes to inflammation and chronic symptoms or it fights off inflammation and reduces symptoms. Choose to fight off inflammation and improve your symptoms by eating whole foods comprised of organic fruits, vegetables, unprocessed grains, healthy fats, and high-quality protein. Eating this way will help you avoid the toxins that are found in processed foods. Eating organic produce will also decrease your exposure to pesticides.
Bolster Your Detox Pathways
In addition to avoiding toxin exposure, it is also imperative to bolster your detox pathways. This allows your detox processes to work more efficiently in handling the smaller amount of toxins you’re now exposed to. This will also increase your immune system’s ability to fight off infections caused by toxins.
–Focus on digestive health: most toxins pass through our digestive system, which then have the burden of processing and excreting them. Therefore, it is healthy to have regular bowel movements in order to excrete toxins. It’s also important to have balanced gut bacteria, as well as keeping your intestinal lining intact and healthy. An unhealthy lining can cause a “leaky gut” where harmful food particles enter our bloodstream.
–Take detox binders: these bind to toxins including heavy metals, mold, and harmful bacteria so that our detox system can carry them away more easily. Talk to our team at CustomCare Nutrition for more information on detox binders and which types are better to take.
–Take detox supplements: niacin (vitamin B3) mobilizes toxins trapped in fatty tissue, while NAC supports liver and kidney detox. Specific amino acids such as glycine, taurine, and methionine support liver health and our ability to neutralize toxins. Our CustomCare Nutrition team can direct you to the right supplements you need to support your detox pathways.
–Additional detox methods: people have had wonderful success with a variety of detox methods including, exercise, meditation, massage, dry brushing, and infrared sauna. These options have shown effective at increasing our detox abilities and excretion of toxins.
With these lifestyle habits firmly in place, your detoxification pathways will be less burdened by the sheer volume of toxins in your body. It will also be stronger and better able to bind to and eliminate the toxins that are unavoidable in today’s world. Implementing these strategies to avoid toxins and bolster your detox systems will also make a huge impact on your immune system to fight off pathogens and infectious agents. In the midst of recovery from a global pandemic, we are not passive bystanders powerless against a virus. We can build stronger and more effective fighting power within our own bodies that will keep us protected during COVID-19.