MTHFR is probably not an acronym you’ve heard of before unless you follow our content closely and/or worked with us on your genetic results.
To most people, it looks like an awful word. At this point in our nutrition coaching practice, it is a common daily language discussed. Even with swimmers we’ve worked with over the years, it can be confusing on how to actually describe what MTHFR is and why it’s affecting your performance if you’re an athlete, especially a swimmer bathing in chlorine daily.
So first, let’s clear up what MTHFR actually stands for. MTHFR stands for methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase. That’s a lot of letters without a space. What does it actually mean? That’s a little more in depth, but we’ll break it down into easy to consume bites of information.
Most importantly, if you’re a swimmer, knowing your results on the MTHFR gene is of uber importance, and you’ll learn why as you continue reading.
What is the MTHFR gene?
The MTHFR gene gives your body instructions to make the MTHFR protein, which helps your body process folic acid into folate. Most people are unaware of the difference between folate and folic acid. We’ll get to that part shortly.
It’s reported about 44% of the population has a variant on MTHFR. In the work we do, we see closer to 90% of our clients showing a variant on MTHFR.
In our testing protocols, we test for two alleles (parts) of the MTHFR gene. One is C677T and one is A1298C. You inherit one copy of your result from each of your biological parents.
When you have variants on the MTHFR gene, your ability to process folic acid becomes impaired. This is concerning because in America, a significant number of our foods contain folic acid.
What is Folic Acid?
Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate. No one in the entire world can use folic acid in the form it is consumed into the body. This form is very difficult for your body to convert into real folate (5-MTHF or methylfolate). The conversion process happens mainly in the liver and if you have high levels of folic acid in your body, it has been shown to create problems.
Not found anywhere in nature, folic acid is a man-made substance that is found in our white breads, white pastas, white rice, cereals, crackers, and other grain-based products. In 1998 folic acid fortification was mandated (voluntary was earlier) in the United States and Canada to “enrich or fortify” foods with more folic acid.
Folic acid is the most prevalent nutrient in the American diet due to our reliance on processed foods and vitamins from the drugstore shelves.
There’s not one compound known to man that enters into the body and is used in the format it is ingested. We have to convert these compounds first, especially folic acid. This process is called methylation, which is regulated by our MTHFR gene. If we have MTHFR variants, our ability to process, or methylate folic acid, is impaired.
Why Does it Matter if I’m Impaired?
As Gary Brecka explains it so brilliantly, you can’t pull crude oil out of the ground and put it in your gas tank. Your car doesn’t recognize crude oil as a fuel source. Human beings are no different. We put raw materials in our body, if the body can’t convert it to a usable form, we now have a deficiency and that deficiency leads to certain conditions.
Most commonly, if your methylation is impaired and you are deficient in folate; depression, anxiety, ADD, OCD, ADHD, chronic fatigue, sleep troubles, gut issues, acid reflux, and disrupted menstrual cycles in women have been linked to impaired methylation.
Many of our clients report mental health as a concern. Significant research links depressive states to lack of folate (5-MTHF or methylfolate).
Specific to our swimming clients, we’ve seen athletes significantly increase daily recovery numbers by removing folic acid from their nutrition routine and start adding sport-safe methylfolate supplementation. On Whoop statistics, an increase as high as 26% better daily recovery has been recorded by reducing intentional consumption of folic acid and ingesting folate (5-MTHF or methylfolate).
Clients have also most commonly reported improvements in daily energy, mood, body cramps, menstrual cycle regulation, and mental health.
Can We “Fix” MTHFR?
Nope, you’re born with what you’re given. So it’s important to know that you have an MTHFR variant and treat your body appropriately. Instead of providing your body man-made vitamins, you can give your body the methylated versions that don’t need to be converted in your body. We can’t fix our own genes, but we can supplement appropriately for their functions.
Does MTHFR Only Affect Folic Acid vs Folate?
No, the other major nutrient that is impacted is your ability to convert man-made Vitamin B12. The most common form of Vitamin B12 in America is cyanocobalamin. This form is found in Kirkland Vitamins, Flinstone Vitamins, Emergen-C, and many common nutritional supplements on the shelves.
We’ve found it in many protein powders, energy drinks, and products labeled as “natural” or “from nature’. There’s nothing “from nature” when it comes to cyanide.
Cyanocobalamin is a cyanide-based B12. Even reputable research studies acknowledge cyanide is indeed in vitamins and other supplements, but these studies report it safe to consume in small amounts.
Consuming light amounts of any toxic/harmful substance does not sound safe. We’ve seen this with clients that have MTHFR variants and consume significant amounts of fish. Mercury, in small amounts is reportedly not harmful to the body, but as it builds up, mercury levels become toxic. We’ve had a number of clients with mercury levels that were too high in a blood draw result due to significant fish consumption and MTHFR variants.
When the body is processing cyanocobalamin, it’s stealing oxygen, light metals, and other nutrients from the cell. Most commonly, gut health is impaired with individuals having MTHFR variants and ingesting large amounts of cyanocobalamin.
Consuming significant amounts of cyanocobalamin is often most related to gut issues including acid reflux. With MTHFR variants, the speed of the gut is slowed down allowing for acid reflux and digestive issues to be more prevalent.
In clients with MTHFR variants, we’ve had reported significant gut and digestive health improvements from reducing intentional consumption of both folic acid and cyanocobalamin. In our swimming clients – especially women, a main complaint is bloating. Nearly all have reported significant digestive relief from reducing synthetic vitamin intake.
Related to the gut, serotonin is highly produced down there. Over 90% of our body’s serotonin is produced in the gut. If our gut health is significantly impaired, we lack serotonin production, which then does not allow proper amounts of serotonin to reach our brain, resulting in mood and mental health concerns.
What About Other Toxic Substances?
Chlorine is another toxic substance that our swimming athletes are exposed to on a daily basis. With MTHFR variants, your body does not detoxify toxins and chemicals properly. To a swimmer that bathes in toxins and chemicals daily, this is of concern.
Because MTHFR variants do not allow a swimmer to process synthetic vitamins properly, which every swimmer consumes in high doses – think pasta parties, B Vitamin levels in swimmers can become low or even deficient. When B Vitamin levels are low in the body, homocysteine levels can elevate causing detoxification to be impaired. More significantly, elevated homocysteine levels have been linked to increase risk of heart disease, dementia, stroke, and Alzheimer’s.
This detoxification impairment can range from 30% to 90% depending on the variants on MTHFR. When a swimmer doesn’t properly detoxify toxins, especially chlorine and other pool chemicals, this can severely impact the body.
To our suspicion, the reason so many young female swimmers that reach out to us have been diagnosed with over/under active thyroids and in a number of cases, Hashimoto’s. Swimmers with no history in the family of autoimmune and fairly clean eating habits beg the question of why is this happening to swimmers?
When the body holds on to chlorine, it will directly impact the function of the thyroid and hormone levels. Many times women have earlier signs of hormone levels being disrupted in the body due to menstrual cycles. Men, we suspect, have the same thyroid function type of concerns, they just aren’t alerted as early or in the same manner as women.
Skin irritants, acne, headaches, fatigue, digestive problems, gut health concerns, thyroid activity issues, light-headedness, and others have been reported from elevated homocysteine levels.
Here’s an analogy we use with our clients. If you went over to your kitchen sink and took a couple big swigs of dish soap, would you die? No, most likely not. However, your body wouldn’t be happy about the dish soap in your system. Dish soap is a foreign substance that your body does not know how to process. Maybe some ingredients can be processed, but most likely, many are not something the body knows what to do with in the digestive system. When there’s substances in our system that the body doesn’t like, it’s going to tell us by reacting. That reaction can range from feeling “bleh” to significant skin concerns to such digestive distress that you may vomit or need to visit the restroom in a timely manner.
When your body is reacting, it’s trying to tell you something. Most often, it doesn’t like what you’re doing to it, so listen.
What the MTHFR Should I Do About This MTHFR?
Discovering that you have MTHFR variants can absolutely be confusing and overwhelming. Many of our swimming clients come to us to find out how to improve recovery, discover food sensitivities, and learn how to properly fuel the body. Most don’t reach out to know their variants on MTHFR.
Along the way in their programs, they discover how important MTHFR is to recovery, digestive troubles, proper fueling, and overall health. Basically, swimmers with MTHFR are able to open up so many more doors to improvement on their training, performances, overall health, and so much more.
Some Recommendations We Provide to our Swimmers with MTHFR are as follows:
Infrared Sauna Detoxification
Supplementing with Sport-Safe Methylated Vitamins
Dry Brushing of the Skin
Epsom Salt Baths or Foot Soaks
Reduction of Folic Acid in Foods and Supplements
Increasing Folate from Food Choices
Increasing Vitamin C Intake (via food and supplementation)
Castor Oil Pack Treatment
Reducing Toxic Exposure in Personal Care & Cleaning Products
How to Discover Your MTHFR Variants
To discover your MTHFR variants, you can go about this in multiple ways. One is a blood test. This can cost you upwards of $1200+ depending on the path you take to get the test. Many times, insurance companies will flag this type of test as “fertility based” (MTHFR has many fertility implications) and deny any coverage of the costs.
A more cost effective route is to use a research based home test like we use in our Genetic Reboot program. This type of test can show your MTHFR variants. Not all home tests are created equal so here’s a couple of things to look for in a home genetic test:
HIPAA Compliance (you don’t want a company selling your genetic data)
MTHFR C677T and MTHFR A1298C tested (it’s important to test both alleles)
Proper Coding of DNA Results (not all companies code properly)
In Depth Consultation on Results (it’s one thing to know about your results, it’s another to actually know what to do with your results – consulting with a professional will help you take proper action on your specific results and lifestyle)
Chalmers, M. (2020). Pillars of Wellness. Frisco, USA/Texas: Dr. Matt Chalmers.
Harvard Medical School (2008, March 1). The ups and down of folic acid fortification. Harvard Health Publishing. Retrieved March 13, 2023, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/womens-health/the-ups-and-downs-of-folic-acid-fortification
Lea, B.. (Host). (2022, July 25). What is Grant Cardone’s 10x Health (No. 495) [Audio podcast episode]. In The Real Brad Lea Dropping Bombs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJH9z01T7CM
Shanahan, C. (2017). Deep Nutrition. New York, USA/ New York: Flatiron Books.