There’s been a lot of buzz lately about methylated B vitamins. In fact, they’re one of seven health and wellness trends we predicted would be huge this year. If you’re curious about jumping on the methylated B vitamins bandwagon, read on to learn more about what they are, what the MTHFR Mutation is (and why it matters when it comes to B vitamins), if you should take methylated B vitamins, and more.
First, Why Do We Need B Vitamins?
Before we dive into the methylation process, let’s take a step back and consider the important role of the B vitamins in our health. “The eight B vitamins, known as the B complex vitamins, are essential to the overall functioning of a healthy body,” says Kylie Ivanir, R.D., dietitian at Within Nutrition. “B vitamins are directly involved in generating energy from food, brain function, and overall metabolism.”
Given their involvement in our metabolism—our body’s energy production processes—the Bs are key players in blood sugar regulation. They also play a role in nerve health and stress support, says Rebekah Blakely, R.D.N., dietitian for The Vitamin Shoppe.
Plus, “B vitamins are especially important for pregnant or breastfeeding women, as they contribute to fetal development,” Ivanir adds.
(Check out our guide for a comprehensive breakdown of the B vitamin group.)
What Methylated B Vitamins Really Are
Whether shopping online or browsing the B vitamins section at a health store, you may have noticed certain bottles are labeled as “methylated.” Methylation is simply a process that happens continuously in our cells. “Methylated” B vitamins have undergone this process, which makes them more bioavailable for absorption.
Read More: 6 Signs You’re Not Getting Enough B Vitamins
“Optimal methylation is necessary for many reactions in the body,” says Ivanir. “Vitamins such as folic acid (vitamin B9) need to be converted in the body into their active or methylated form to be used. When you consume the already-active form, the body is more readily able to absorb and utilize these vitamins.”
All About The MTHFR Gene (And Why It Matters)
Easy absorption? Sounds great. That’s not the whole story behind this rising supplement trend, though. That’s where something called the MTHFR gene mutation comes in.
All individuals are born with two MTHFR genes (one from your mom and one from your dad), and it’s possible for one or both of these genes to be mutated.
“When there is no MTHFR gene mutation, the gene helps folic acid and other B vitamins to break down the [amino acid] homocysteine in your body,” explains plant-based dietitian Amy Gorin, R.D.N., owner of Plant-Based Eats. “But if you have a MTHFR mutation, this may not happen the way it’s supposed to.” You see, without proper MTHFR function, the body can’t convert folic acid into its bioavailable form folate.
The result: excess homocysteine in the blood, which can heighten your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and blood clots, Gorin says. Elevated homocysteine levels have been associated with both increased risk of heart disease and cognitive issues, Blakely notes.
Too much homocysteine can also lead to the development of a disorder called homocystinuria, which often involves nearsightedness, greater risk of abnormal blood clotting, brittle bones, and developmental delays and learning problems,” elaborates Gorin.
Not to mention, lacking B vitamins can contribute to all sorts of other issues. “For instance, having low levels of folic acid can lead to a condition called megaloblastic anemia,” says Gorin. (In this condition, you have fewer red blood cells than normal—and they’re different in shape in size than usual.) Megaloblastic anemia can cause pale skin, lowered appetite, fatigue, diarrhea, and more not-so-fun situations. During pregnancy, it can cause neural tube defects.
Could YOU Have The MTHFR Mutation?
It’s unclear exactly how many people are born with the MTHFR mutation, but it’s believed to be fairly common.
The most common MTHFR mutation is called the MTHFR C677T mutation. This MTHFR deficiency is most prominent amongst Hispanic and Caucasian individuals, affecting an estimated 40 percent of those populations.
The other mutation, called MTHFR A1298C, is seen in roughly 10 percent of North American, European, and Australian populations.
How severely a mutation impacts you depends on which mutation you have and whether you have variants from one or both parents, explains Blakely. “Having at least one copy of a mutated (or variant) MTHFR gene actually appears to be fairly common, and does not necessarily result in negative health consequences for everyone,” she adds.
To find out if you have an MTHFR gene mutation, doctors typically test your homocysteine levels first, Gorin says. If that comes back high, they’ll investigate the gene, specifically.
“You can ask your physician to request the MTHFR DNA testing or MTHFR mutation test for you at your nearest lab center,” says cardiology dietitian Michelle Routhenstein, R.D., C.D.E., owner of Entirely Nourished. Or, you can purchase a direct-to-consumer genetics test. 23andMe and Ancestry, for example, both look for MTHFR variants.
Should You Take A Methylated B Vitamin Supplement?
Considering those with MTHFR mutation don’t get the most out of conventional B vitamin supplements, they can greatly benefit from a methylated option.
That said, methylated B supplements can be helpful for anyone, since they’re simply better absorbed in your body, Gorin suggests. Vegans and vegetarians, in particular, may want to add methylated B vitamins to their routine, as their diets are often low in B12. (If you’re concerned you’re not getting enough B vitamins, here are six common signs.)
Just note that if you do have a MTHFR gene mutation, you’ll want to look at your diet in addition to adjusting your supplement regimen. “Individuals with the MTHFR gene should avoid foods fortified with folic acid and unmethylated B vitamins,” says Routhenstein. “They should also choose sources of food that contain methylated B vitamins.” Some of these foods include asparagus, lentils, eggs, salmon, and yogurt.