The first question is, ‘What is methylation?’ When we speak about methylation as it relates to the body, it is thought of as the process that regulates protein synthesis, genetic expression and many aspects of metabolism. Since the completion of the Human Genome Project in April 2003 there has been particular interest in the genes that control the activation of folate (folic acid, vitamin B9) from the diet. This is required so the body can methylate one necessary compound to convert it to another. Note that the terms folate and folic acid are not interchangeable. Folic acid is the form found in fortified foods and supplements, and folate is the form found naturally in foods. The body must activate folate, found in such foods as green vegetables, mushrooms, and some types of beans, so it can be used. In order to activate folate it is converted into 5-methyltetrahydrofolate or 5-MTHF. The gene that codes for the enzyme that facilitates this conversion is the 5-methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (5-MTHFR) gene.
This gene may be mutated so that a child is significantly less efficient at converting folate from their diet into the usable form in the body. If this occurs he is less efficient at regulating protein synthesis, genetic expression and other factors related to metabolism.
Much of the early research involving the MTHFR mutation surrounded its link with birth defects in babies or in elevated levels of an amino acid called homocysteine, which is associated with higher risk of blood clots, stroke, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease. New research on methylation is showing the link may extend to disorders like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and even autism, ADHD and other developmental disorders.
If you are concerned about your child’s status, a simple blood test is all it takes to determine if this genetic mutation is present. If it is, the answer is also quite simple. Since this gene controls how well your child converts folate/folic acid in his diet to the active form you have two options. The first is to give your child high doses of folic acid. This will ensure he converts enough to the active form to reduce risk. This may require 5-10mg or more per day. The other, and more favorable option is to provide a pre-activated folic acid supplement. This is often called methylfolate. The dosages required for this are much lower as it’s already in the usable and active form. Here, doses of 800-1,600mcg may be sufficient. Methylation is the new frontier in functional medicine and knowing your child’s status may make a world of difference in many developmental conditions.