Methylation is a natural chemical process that happens in our body’s cells. For those interested in chemistry, a methyl group consists of 1 carbon atom and 3 hydrogen atoms. When methyl groups are added to a protein, we say the protein is methylated. Methylation changes how the methylated protein reacts to other substances in the body. For example, after methylation, proteins like enzymes, hormones and genes create new compounds that increase the body’s function and immune system.
The function of methyl groups in the body is to control:
- Energy production.
- Stress response (fight or flight).
- Expression of the genes and DNA repair.
- The production of the body’s master antioxidant – glutathione.
- Neurotransmitters and regulation of brain chemistry.
- The repair of cells that have been damaged by free radicals.
- The body’s inflammation response.
- Detoxification (1).
- And regulate the body’s immune response, T-cell production, to fight viral and bacterial infections.
The processes listed above help the body respond to environmental stressors, detoxify, and then to adapt and rebuild. If you have a shortage of methyl groups in the body or the process of methylation is disturbed or stopped, all the processes listed above are affected in a negative way, and illness can result. Impairment of the methylation process is linked to major chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, neurological conditions in adults, Alzheimer’s disease, immune system problems, aging, autism, and chronic fatigue. In this article we will discuss how methylation is connected to immunity.
Methylation changes cell function throughout the body in such a way that it gives the immune system a boost, while increasing the effectiveness of many other physiological functions. Therefore, as long as the methylation process takes place as expected in the body, you have a very strong immune system and the body operates at maximum efficiency. On the other hand, if the process of methylation is interfered with, then the immune system is weakened and you can become a victim to infection and disease.
Methylation plays a crucial role in the production of glutathione, the body’s “master antioxidant.” Glutathione is present in every cell and its function is to remove toxins and to oxidize free radicals. It also supports the immune system in fighting off viruses and bacteria (2).
Methylation and Autoimmune Diseases
Research has uncovered the connection between damaged methylation and the development of autoimmune diseases. Methylation within DNA maintains T-cell function. In one study, abnormal DNA methylation was deliberately created in animals, reducing production of T-cells. The animals developed lupus, what scientists call drug-induced lupus. This was proof that lupus and other autoimmune diseases are linked to impaired methylation.
Various scientists also found that T-cells from patients who suffer from lupus showed evidence of abnormal methylation. This shows that irregular DNA methylation is involved in the type of human lupus whose cause is unknown (3).
Methylation and Anti-tumor Immune Response
Methylation is involved in the production of T-cells that attack viruses, bacteria and cancer cells. Low T-cells can lead to the accumulation of different infections and the development of tumors. Research scientists have found DNA methylation to be abnormal in all forms of cancer, though it is not understood how this happens (4). Research is ongoing.
Methylation and NeuroImmune Syndrome
Methylation plays a large role in the production of glutathione, which removes heavy metals from the body. Heavy metals have been found to play a huge role in NeuroImmune syndromes, i.e. disorders of both the nervous system and the immune system, which are naturally connected. Examples of NeuroImmune Syndromes are ADD, ADHD, autism, ALS, Alzheimer’s disease, vertigo and post-concussion syndrome. It is safe to assume that as long as the methylation process works well, and the body can get rid of heavy metals on its own, one will not develop any NeuroImmune Syndrome (5).
As you can see, methylation is a natural process that plays a major role in the maintenance of our immune system. Scientists are beginning to discover how methylation affects the immune system development and function. They still know very little about how DNA methylation plays a role in cancer and autoimmunity. What is clear, however, is that we must make an effort to support the methylation function in the body so that it continues to work long into our old age. Since everyone is unique, it is important to get genetic testing in order to know your methylation type. Then from there you can take steps to protect it.
1. Corey, M., Methylation: Why it Matters for Your Immunity, Inflammation & More, April 9, 2015
2. Townsend D.M. et al, The Importance of Glutathione in Human Disease
3. Richardson B., DNA Methylation and Autoimmune Disease, October 2003
4. Klutstein M., DNA Methylation in Cancer and Aging, June 2016
5. Methylation, December 2016