Should I eat a special MTHFR diet? 

Once you have confirmed you have an inherited MTHFR variant through genetic testing, the first nutritional recommendation you will likely get is to start methylfolate supplementation. While this may be the most important missing piece, there are other foods/nutrients you should consider on an MTHFR diet to support optimal methylation.

Taking a methylfolate supplement (and other activated B vitamins) can support the methylation process for all people. It is especially important, however, for those who cannot process folic acid efficiently and may be experiencing related issues.

What is methylation?

Methylation is an extremely important biochemical process. It is always happening in the body in nearly every cell. Methylation is involved in activities from central nervous system development to cell division, production and metabolism of neurotransmitters, detoxification of toxins, biotransformation of hormones, cellular energy metabolism, genetic regulation, and more [1].

About 50% of the population has inherited genetic variations of the MTHFR gene (and others) that result in reduced efficiency in transforming synthetic folic acid into activated methylfolate [2]. This is why taking methylfolate directly is so beneficial for those with this genetic difference.

Methylfolate is not necessarily enough, however. There are many more required nutrients for the upstream and downstream processes associated with methylation to take place. For example, a healthy methylation or MTHFR diet should take into account nutrients that support processes such as serotonin production and homocysteine metabolism as well.

There are physiologic factors that can throw methylation out of balance too. Factors like inflammatory response, oxidative stress, the microbiome and gut health, hormone balance, methyl donor draining, and detoxification can all affect methylation. When we correct these imbalances or support the health of these other influences, we can support healthy, balanced methylation indirectly.

What types of foods should I eat on an MTHFR diet?

Of course, just like most health-supportive diets, an MTHFR diet should contain lots of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fiber, high-quality protein, and healthy fats [3]. Outside of just a generally healthy diet, research points to low-carb, high-fiber, no-refined-sugar diets as better for folate support and methylation [4,5]. 

Dr. Kara Fitzgerald, a leading methylation expert, even suggests some intermittent fasting and periodic ketosis as a part of her MTHFR diet and lifestyle protocol [5].

Probiotics

Optimizing gut function, digestion, and absorption, is key to an MTHFR diet. Research also shows that you can increase serum folate levels by just adjusting the microbiome using specific probiotic species. Look for fermented foods or a probiotic supplement containing Lactococcus lactis, Streptococcus thermophilus, and Lactiplantibacillus plantarum as these species all secrete folate [4]. 

The gut microbiome thrives even more so when we add certain prebiotics as well, as they are rich in short-chain fatty acids and fiber that feed only the bacteria we want to encourage. Onions, garlic, leeks, bananas, apples, and asparagus are all rich in prebiotics [6]. In turn, the gut microbiome influences the epigenome and the methylation patterns in the DNA [1]. A healthy microbiome is fundamental to healthy methylation.

Cruciferous Vegetables

When it comes to vegetables, those in the cruciferous family, including broccoli, cabbage, kale, and Brussels sprouts, are a great choice for an MTHFR diet. They are not only folate-rich, low in sugar, and high in gut-healthy fiber, but also contain the detoxification-supporting compound sulforaphane [3]. 

Protein/Amino Acid Sources

Methionine is an amino acid required for healthy methylation. In fact, the methionine-homocysteine cycle is central to the methylation process. While it can be produced internally to some degree, you can optimize methionine levels in the body by consuming protein-rich foods like beef, lamb, cheese, turkey, pork, soy, eggs, dairy, and beans [3].

Betaine and choline are also methyl donors. Making choline (which can then be transformed into betaine) within the body demands a lot of energy and nutrition. This classifies them as “methyl donor drains” [7]. Choline is also considered conditionally essential because there are three steps of SAMe needed to make it, and if we don’t have enough SAMe, we can’t make enough choline. 

Eggs are arguably the best source of dietary choline [5]. Beets are a natural source of betaine [3]. Betaine can help metabolize homocysteine and support liver function [3]. 

The more we supply the body with dietary aminos like choline, betaine, and methionine, the more we support and protect methyl donor supply for methylation. 

Methylation Adaptogens

There are certain herbals or botanical extracts that are scientifically supported to promote benefits in the body. Specifically, some adaptogens appear to boost methylation. Some methylation-specific adaptogens you can take as supplements are quercetin, resveratrol, rosemarinic acid, EGCG, diindolylmethane (DIM), and curcumin [5]. They can be found in lower potency in foods like grapes, berries, cherries (quercetin and resveratrol), rosemary, sage, basil (rosemarinic acid), green tea (EGCG), cruciferous vegetables (DIM), and turmeric (curcumin).

What should I avoid?

According to Dr. Fitzgerald, sugar can have a pretty profoundly negative influence on epigenetic expression [1]. Cutting out all refined sugars, and avoiding simple carbohydrates and high-sugar fruits may therefore benefit methylation.

Other toxins, such as alcohol, and those found in processed foods are also best to avoid. Filter your drinking water and remember that what goes on your skin is as important as what you put in your mouth. Avoid storing food in plastics, chemicals in beauty supplies, and toxic cleaning products [8]. Even scented candles can release harmful chemicals into the air. Any extra work your body has to do to detoxify will take away from your ability to methylate.

Lastly, avoid folic acid if you have MTHFR. We still don’t know the long-term consequences of this synthetic form of folate, and it is found in all kinds of fortified flours, cereal grains, etc. Check nutrition facts and avoid foods containing folic acid when possible. There is research that shows build-up in the body when you are not efficiently processing it could be harmful [8]. 

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References

  1. https://www.drkarafitzgerald.com/2016/06/28/methylation-diet-lifestyle-introduction/
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19356019/
  3. https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/food-and-supplement-considerations-if-you-have-mthfr-genetic-variant
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8774781/#:~:text=Many%20lactic%20acid%20bacteria%20(LAB,Streptococcus%20thermophilus%2C%20and%20Lactiplantibacillus%20plantarum
  5. https://drhedberg.com/methylation-diet-kara-fitzgerald/
  6. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/19-best-prebiotic-foods
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3798916/
  8. https://mthfrsupport.com.au/2020/08/what-you-need-to-eat-and-avoid-for-mthfr/