Have you ever wondered why things like diet, exercise, and your stress levels determine your health status and how you age? Turns out that the secret sauce to aging well lies in something called methylation—a genetic switch that can turn your genes on and off. Depending on the gene, this can either support good health or it can contribute to disease and premature aging. Let’s take a deeper dive into why optimizing methylation is so critical for a long and healthy life.
What the Heck is Methylation?
Methylation is a metabolic process at the core of epigenetics—a fairly new topic of research in scientific and longevity circles. Epigenetics is the study of how your behaviors and environment change the way your genes work. These changes don’t alter the structure of your DNA but they do affect the way your genes are expressed.
Methylation works by attaching small molecules called methyl groups to fragments of your DNA. When a methyl group is added to a gene, it influences how that gene expresses itself. This can be beneficial or it can be harmful, depending on the information the methyl group gets. For instance, if you eat a healthy diet filled with fruits and vegetables, methylation uses that nutritional “information” to switch on genes that support healthy cellular repair. But if your diet consists of Big Macs and candy bars, methylation might switch a tumor-causing gene on, setting the stage for cancer. What this means is that methylation can increase or decrease your odds of developing certain conditions based on your lifestyle. And this is true even if you are genetically predisposed to certain diseases like dementia or heart disease.
But methylation not only impacts your genes, it also controls artery-damaging homocysteine, recycles molecules used for detoxification, and helps to keep inflammation in check. So you can see how keeping methylation in top form is critical for healthy aging.
How Aging Affects Methylation
If you live a healthy lifestyle, it’s likely that methylation is working to your advantage. The problem is, methylation appears to decline as you age. This could be why older adults are more vulnerable to developing a chronic illness. Conditions linked to low or abnormal methylation include:
- Alzheimer’s disease and dementia
- Attention deficit disorder
- Cognitive decline
- Heart disease
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- Poor detoxification
- Type 2 diabetes
Because methylation is an important key in turning on genes that lead to good health, and in turning off genes that lead to disease, optimizing the process is critical for a long, healthy life. The good news? Improving your body’s methylation capabilities is do-able at every age!
5 Habits to Make Your Genes Happy
Trading in harmful behaviors like a diet filled with ultra-processed food, poor sleep, or smoking for healthy habits can support proper methylation, no matter how old you are. But there are other factors that can negatively affect methylation such as exposure to heavy metals or other environmental toxins. And here’s the kicker: You don’t need to live next to a smokestack to be exposed. Chronic use of chemical-filled household cleansers or an excessive sushi habit can impact methylation.
So how can you enhance healthy DNA methylation? Here are five habits to adopt now.
- Don’t smoke and avoid second-hand exposure. A long-term tobacco habit—or living/working in a smoke-filled environment—changes DNA methylation and how the genes in your body’s fatty tissue are expressed. Studies have shown that these changes can raise your risk of cancer and diabetes. But a group of Scottish researchers found that quitting can reverse these harmful changes in as little as two years.
- Drink in moderation. There’s a reason health experts advise limiting alcohol intake to two drinks per day for men and one drink for women. Chronic or excessive drinking has been found to significantly reduce methylation. This may be especially important for women. In one study that appeared in PLoS Genetics, researchers looked at tumors from 162 breast cancer patients. They found that those who drank large amounts of alcohol were more likely to have decreased methylation.
- Eat real food. Your diet is one of the most important factors influencing DNA methylation. It’s also the easiest to change. Swapping out low-nutrient processed foods for whole foods—especially those high in choline like shellfish, poultry, eggs, cauliflower, leafy greens, and flax seeds—can help optimize your methylation. Why choline? Because when the body metabolizes choline, it turns certain potentially harmful genes off. Other methylation-supporting foods include asparagus, potatoes, spinach, bananas, oranges, liver, fish, cheese, and milk. These foods are high in B vitamins such as folate, which are essential for proper methylation.
- Move your body. Getting regular exercise can change the way your genes are expressed thanks to methylation. This was shown in a small study of slightly overweight middle-aged men who didn’t exercise. During the study, all of the men took part in twice-weekly exercise classes. After six months, the researchers were shocked to discover that the men experienced changes in specific genes that influence obesity and type 2 diabetes. This happened because exercise can beneficially change DNA methylation.
- Lose weight. Did you know that your weight—especially when it’s carried around your midsection—is directly linked to your methylation levels? Research shows that being overweight or obese can alter methylation—and not in a good way. This, in turn, can disrupt the way your body metabolizes cholesterol and triglycerides, and leading to an increased risk of systemic inflammation, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. But a recent study of a group of 50-year old women found that participating in a six-month weight loss program that included resistance training resulted in an increase in beneficial methylation.
Nutrients to Improve Your Methylation
Adopting the habits above can be a great way to start improving your methylation. Adding in the following supplements, however, can take it to the next level.
Magnesium. This important mineral is a cofactor in a number of processes that ensure healthy methylation. Yet many people have woefully low magnesium levels. Fortunately, recent studies show that supplementing with magnesium can improve methylation. But the type of magnesium matters. Magnesium bisglycinate chelate is the preferred form since it acts like a calming agent in the body and doesn’t have the same laxative effect other forms of magnesium are known for.
Polyphenols. Found in a wide range of healthy foods like berries, herbs, nuts, and veggies, antioxidant-rich polyphenols help reverse harmful gene expression by supporting beneficial DNA methylation. In addition to chowing down on polyphenol-rich foods, you can take them in supplemental form. Look for a supplement that contains a combination of heavy-hitter polyphenols like apple extract, tannin-free French grape seed extract VX1, green tea extract, propolis, and a bioavailable form of curcumin like BCM-95, which is blended with turmeric essential oil for optimal absorption.
Vitamin B Complex. If you aren’t getting enough of the Bs, your methylation cycle can break down. While all of the B vitamins support healthy methylation, three are critical: B6, B12, and folate. These three Bs are methyl donors, which are important for cellular functions like methylation. They also help keep homocysteine in check. But it’s important to take the active form of these Bs. Check the label to make sure your supplement contains vitamin B6 as pyridoxal-5-phosphate, B2 as methylcobalamin, and folate (not folic acid) from L-5-methyltetrahydrofolate calcium salt.
Vitamin D. Is there anything the “sunshine vitamin” can’t do? Studies show that low levels of vitamin D can impair methylation—and that can boost your risk of a number of chronic diseases. Look for a supplement that provides 5,000 IU of cholecalciferol, the active form of vitamin D3.
Supporting healthy methylation levels with smart habits and targeted supplements can improve the way your genes are expressed at every age. This not only supports good health at a genetic level, it just might help you die young at a very old age.
Should You Check Your Personal Methylation Levels?
If you do a quick search online, you’ll likely come up with a list of labs offering genetic or DNA methylation profile testing. These labs rely on kits—which cost anywhere between $100 and $2,000—that you can use to collect a sample of your DNA to send off for analysis. While these tests claim to highlight how well your methylation cycle is operating and pinpoint your genetic risk for certain diseases, the science is still in its infancy and the amount of information you can get from these kits may be limited. However, that may change over the next few decades. Some experts predict that in the not-to-distant future, testing your DNA methylation levels may become a routine diagnostic tool for identifying your disease risk.