01 Oct MTHFR and Fortified Foods
Compromised genetics combined with modern day fortified foods and environmental stressors have been strongly linked to a magnitude of health problems including heart disease, largely due to MTHFR genetic mutations and the poor methylation of B vitamins.
Years ago, our ancient ancestors were rarely affected by conditions like heart disease, cancer, neurological disorders, mental dysfunction, birth defects, thyroid dysfunction, and fibromyalgia. Of course at that time we would have never dreamed of genetically modifying our fruits and vegetables, pumping our meat and dairy products full of hormones and antibiotics or fortifying/enriching our grains to make them “healthier”. Likewise, chemicals such as MSG, Pesticides/Herbicides, BPA’s, and heavy metals were also unheard of and were certainly not being added to our foods and environment in such immense amounts.
The Human Genome Project
Many are aware of the direct correlations to disease and poor lifestyle and dietary choices and perhaps a personal and/or family history of one or more of the aforementioned conditions were motivating factors for your interest in a Paleolithic Lifestyle. While changing your diet and lifestyle can be immensely beneficial and of course proactively avoiding excessive chemical exposure can lessen your toxic burden; it is important to remember that sometimes we just can’t outsmart our genetics. Today, I’d like to discuss a landmark discovery involving a 13 year study that looked specifically at genetics and their relation to certain health conditions, known as the Human Genome Project (HGP).
The HGP was conducted with a goal of finding genetic links to common health problems in order to catch these conditions before they occur. The goal of this project was to create a greater focus on preventing certain health conditions by looking upstream at genetic predisposition rather than waiting for disease to develop and pharmaceutically “treating”(or in many cases masking) the resulting symptoms. Wrapping up in 2003, the HGP brought some of the most advanced findings in history around many of today’s most common health problems.
MTHFR Genetic Mutation
One of the most significant discoveries of the Human Genome project was the MTHFR genetic mutation. Those who carry this genetic mutation produce much less of the MTHFR or “Methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase”enzyme, resulting in a reduced ability to convert (through a process of methylation) folic acid/folate into its bioavailable form, 5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF). 5-MTHF is essential for the body to function properly and affects more than 20 different processes.
Wondering if this might be affecting YOUR health? Chances are it just might! MTHFR mutations are very common, with up to 40% of the population possessing one copy of the mutation (allowing 55-70% of normal function) and up to 30% having two defected copies (leading to only 10-15% of normal function).
Functions of methylation involve turning genes on and off, processing hormones, building immune cells, DNA and RNA synthesis, energy production, detoxification, and neurological function. Without proper methylation, serious health complications can arise. Poor methylation has been linked to a number of conditions including: autism, multiple sclerosis, depression, ADD/ADHD, birth defects, neuropathy, fibromyalgia, infertility, thyroid dysfunction, cardiovascular disease and cancer (just to name a few). Methylation can be assessed with a simple laboratory test evaluating homocysteine and glutathione. Elevated homocysteine and/or insufficient glutathione levels can be indicators of poor methylation.
Folic Acid and Folate
Here is where it gets really interesting! You may already know that folic acid supplementation is strongly recommended during pregnancy to reduce the prevalence of neural tube defects (spina bifida). However, since the introduction of fortified breads, pastas, cereals, sports drinks, and most vitamin supplements, recent studies now estimate that folic acid fortification may be responsible for increased cancer risk (1,2,3) . As mentioned in Prevention Magazine, “The more we learn about folic acid, the more it’s clear that giving it to everyone has very real risks,” says folic acid researcher David Smith, PhD, a professor of pharmacology at the University of Oxford in England. According to the calculations of Joel Mason, MD(director of the Vitamins and Carcinogenesis Laboratory at the Tufts University School of Medicine) a significant increase in the prevalence of colorectal cancer developed between 1996 and 2000 (following years of steady decline), which just so happened to also be around the same time we began fortifying our food supply (2).
Folic Acid is an inexpensive man-made molecule used to fortify our food and most store-bought vitamins. Unlike the nature-made form, dihydrofolate (found abundantly in green leafy vegetables, asparagus, avocado, broccoli, liver, and citrus fruits); folic acid is a synthetic chemical compound that is fully oxidized and more stable than when in its natural state. The problem with synthetic folic acid is that the enzymatic conversion (discussed above) into dihydrofolate (and ultimately 5-MTHF) is slow, making it difficult for the body to convert and metabolize. These elevated levels of folic acid often lead to decreased cancer fighting “Natural Killer Cells” (NK cells) (1). As a result, some studies suggest the high amounts of fortified foods or “enriched” foods that are so plentiful in today’s diet can significantly increase these levels of un-metabolized folic acid, thus increasing one’s risk of cancer and disease- ESPECIALLY in those possessing the MTHFR genetic mutation.
Other factors that contribute to poor methylation (regardless of whether you have the MTHFR genetic defect) are: deficiencies in methylation cofactors (which include zinc, magnesium, B6 and B12), medications such as antacids which lead to poor absorption of B12, heavy metal exposure, and a number of harmful chemicals found in our food, water, and the air we breathe. As you can see, much of our modern day advancements in agriculture and diet have only further complicated this natural and necessary process.
MTHFR Testing and Management
For those looking to proactively manage/prevent autism, autoimmune conditions, depression, ADD/ADHD, neuropathy, fibromyalgia, infertility, thyroid dysfunction, heart disease and cancer; I recommend beginning with a simple blood test looking at both MTHFR variants (I prefer the company Spectracell Laboratories for convenience, clinical-quality, and price). If results conclude that you have one or both of the genetic mutations, you may benefit significantly from avoiding fortified foods and opting for a whole foods based, nutrient rich diet (such as Paleo!). Reading supplement labels is also extremely important and opt for vitamins containing “L-5 methyltetrahydrofolate” or “5 formyltetrahydrofolate” (the bioavailable forms of folate that bypass a compromised methylation pathway) rather than “folic acid” or “folate”.
Even those without the MTHFR genetic mutation can benefit from optimizing the process of methylation in their bodies with lifestyle changes that include: implementing a periodic detox or cleanse, following an organic whole food Paleo diet, using water filters, practicing stress reduction, avoiding environmental toxins whenever possible, and utilizing proper supplementation.
While our ancient ancestors had little use for things like genetic testing, we now live in a time where these diagnostic tools can be extremely beneficial in preventing debilitating diseases and conditions.
For those with MTHFR defects, it is imperative to implement proactive dietary & lifestyle habits to optimize overall health! For the estimated 60% of the population without this genetic defect, it is still vital to understand and control the factors that affect methylation to enable this process to occur more efficiently, thus helping to promote optimal wellness. Discovering your MTHFR genotype can provide valuable information about how to support your biochemical pathways to prevent some of today’s most common health conditions. If you would like to further pursue MTHFR testing, you can contact your primary care physician or look for a Functional Medicine practitioner in your area. For those local to the Central Oregon area, contact our Wellness Doctor office Here for MTHFR testing and more.
-Jason M. Kremer, DC, CCSP, CSCS
I) Unmetabolized folic acid in plasma is associated with reduced natural killer cell cytotoxicity among postmenopausal women. J Nutr 2006;136(1):189–94
II) A temporal association between folic acid fortification and an increase in colorectal cancer rates may be illuminating important biological principles: a hypothesis. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 2007;16(7):1325–9
III) Eur J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2009 Apr;21(4):436-9. doi: 10.1097/MEG.0b013e328306ccdb. Colon cancer in Chile before and after the start of the flour fortification program with folic acid