Is ADHD A Methylation Problem?

mood learning & behaviour
Methylation and ADHD

Methylation, MTHFR, methyl-donors.... heard of this?

In this post, I'm writing a simple guide to understand the impact of methylation on ADHD. But in truth, methylation affects all aspects of our physical and mental wellness.

Over the last 20 years, there has been lots of talk about how methylation impacts everything from heart disease to schizophrenia, and significant interest in how it influences ADHD symptoms. 

This is good news for parents since we know a lot about how to help a body methylate in a consistent and predictable way! Seeing ADHD as a methylation issue gives us an even better understanding of which nourishment-focused strategies can help. 


What is Methylation?


Imagine a tiny factory in your body, working to keep everything balanced. This factory uses special messenger packages called "methyl groups", which are simply carbon molecules with three hydrogen molecules attached, to help with tasks.

These carbon-hydrogen packages are some of the most important workhorses of the body, engaging in over a billion processes a second inside every single one of our cells.

Methylation refers to our ability to create and use these methyl groups.


Methylation Does A Lot Of Things!


I think of Methylation like a dimmer switch - sometimes it revs processes up and sometimes it revs them down, to maintain balance.

Every instant, methyl groups are transferred here and there to make things happen. 

Here are some of the processes that involve the donation of methyl groups:

  • Methyl groups help in the conversion of serotonin to melatonin, our sleep hormone
  • Methyl groups activate the expression of certain genes - the COMT and HNMT genes, for example, can't function well unless methylated
  • Methyl groups attach to folate to turn it into methyl folate which we need to make and recycle serotonin and dopamine, make more methyl donors, detoxify, and carry out several hundreds of other functions
  • Methyl groups are needed to break down histamine and regulate inflammation
  • Methyl groups help flush certain metals like arsenic from the body
  • Methyl groups help repair DNA damage that might be caused by environmental toxins and other stressors
  • Methyl groups are needed for the creation of phosphatidylcholine which is a critical component of our cell membrane.

These are just a few of the thousands of functions that happen every second that require methyl groups.

The Bottom line: Methylation is a core process that occurs thousands of times a second and impacts just about everything.


Why Methylation Matters in ADHD (and mood/behavior in general)


Methylation can affect how our brain works. Methylation imbalances might contribute to:

  • Low serotonin and dopamine, affecting mood and impulsivity
  • High dopamine and adrenaline, contributing to panic, anxiety, poor concentration
  • Low acetylcholine, contributing to poor memory and slower cognition
  • Poor sleep due to low melatonin.
  • Difficulty detoxifying harmful substances, causing symptoms like irritability, brain fog, energy crashes, memory problems, poor sleep
  • Energy and memory issues due to affected mitochondria.
  • High histamine, contributing to congestion, headaches, bowel issues, further sleep issues, rages, addiction, appetite changes 

Bottom Line: methylation imbalance influences how we feel and function. Your ADHD child might have a methylation imbalance.


Nourishment and Methylation


Good nutrition is crucial for balanced methylation!

Nutrients like zinc, B vitamins, iron, magnesium, potassium, and protein support methylation. Exercise increases methyl groups. And the more relaxed we are the fewer methyl groups we need so helping your child feel relaxed, safe, and connected helps ease the pressure on the methylation system. 

The nourishment-dependent nature of methylation is one of the many reasons I almost always start by asking the families I work with, "what kind of nourishment can we add in?"  to help their struggling kids. 

Bottom Line: Kids need premium nourishment, in all its forms, to keep this methylation system functioning well! 


Are Methylation Imbalances Genetic?


Partly, yes. But lifestyle, nutrition, and environment play a huge role too.

Research in Epigenetics has shown us that how you methylate can actually change over time regardless of genetics.  

How the process of methylation functions minute to minute is affected by things like what we eat, what supplements we take, our environment, our gut ecosystem, what chemicals we're exposed to, and our stress load.

It's in these lifestyle strategies where, as parents, we can have the greatest impact.

Bottom Line: Your child's capacity to function well is about more than their genetics. But if you know their genetic tendencies you know where to focus your efforts


Assessing Your Child's Methylation Status


To understand your child's methylation status, you can consider:

  • Blood tests for Whole Blood Histamine levels, as histamine needs methyl groups to be regulated.

This method of methylation assessment comes from the research of Dr William Walsh. Clinically, histamine has turned out to be a very helpful marker but it requires a blood draw and might not be readily available to everyone outside of the US. Also, some medications like Lexapro, Cymbalta, Clozapine, Risperidone, Xanax, Klonopin, and Trazadone will raise histamine by a different mechanism. So this route might not be best if your child is already on medication.

  • Questionnaires to identify traits related to methylation imbalances.

Dr. Walsh has spent about 40 years cataloging and refining character traits that correlate with the biochemistry of overmethylation and undermethylation. He describes them in his book, Nutrient Power. For example, overmethylators tend towards high anxiety and panic, while undermethylators tend to be competitive and perfectionistic, experience OCD type behavior, and often have allergies. Both types can be prone to depression and sleep disorders. Using a questionnaire like this is of course not diagnostic, but it can be a useful adjunct tool as you look for clues to help understand your child.

  • Genetic testing to identify potential methylation-related gene variants.

Genes involved in the process of methylation include (but are not limited to) MTHFR1298, MTHFR677, FOLR2, and TCN2. Factors in utero and early childhood can create variants in these genes, impacting how they function. If there are variants in these genes alongside symptoms, there might be a methylation problem. Genetic tests, usually done by saliva, do not tell you exactly how methylation is functioning but they do give you a blueprint outlining tendencies. When used in combination with a detailed symptom history, the questionnaires, and other functional tests listed here, genetic tests can be a useful tool to piece together the picture so you can start some methylation support. 

  • Organic Acid urine tests

This urine test is an indirect way of assessing methylation status. Uracil and Thymine, two metabolites of folate metabolism, are helpful markers. Uracil needs to be methylated to convert into Thymine, so if your child is lacking methyl groups we might see elevated Uracil in relation to Thymine as it gets "backed up". Other methylation clues are high levels of 2-Hydroxybutyric acid, low levels of Pyroglutamic acid and high levels of methylmalonic acid. 

Bottom Line: there's genetic tendency and then there's real-time function when it comes to methylation. Both can be helpful to know.


The Bottom Line 

ADHD symptoms (and how we feel in general) involve methylation. Understanding methylation can guide you toward targeted nutritional and lifestyle strategies, empowering you to support your child's well-being more effectively.


Methylation capacity can have a genetic component to it (which might help explain why ADHD also has a strong genetic component), but it is also very much affected by nutrients, stress, exercise, and lifestyle (which explains why nutritional approaches can be so helpful).  

So knowing your child's methylation status might be one way to more quickly land on targeted nutritional tools to help them feel and function better and be more successful.

In your older child, this information can also help them understand their tendencies so they can better grasp why you're asking them to make good choices around food, supplements, exercise, stress reduction and sleep.

Knowing your child's methylation status can be incredibly empowering!


Related posts 

Top Mistake Parents Make When Changing Their Child's Diet)

Nutritional Approaches to ADHD, where do you start? )


Selected References:

Folate Fact Sheet

DNA methylation profiles at birth and child ADHD symptoms

Attention, cognitive control and motivation in ADHD: Linking event-related brain potentials and DNA methylation patterns in boys at early school age

Histamine in the brain

An emerging role for epigenetic factors in relation to executive function

Dopaminergic gene methylation is associated with cognitive performance in a childhood monozygotic twin

Walsh, William. Nutrient Power: Heal Your Biochemistry and Heal Your Brain. 2014

Bergen, S. E., Gardner, C. O. & Kendler, K. S. Age-related changes in heritability of behavioral phenotypes over adolescence and young adulthood. Twin Res. Hum. Genet. 10, 423–433 (2007).   ;  

Larsson, H., Chang, Z., D’Onofrio, B. M. & Lichtenstein, P. The heritability of clinically diagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder across the lifespan. Psychol. Med. 44, 2223–2229 (2014)


About Jess Sherman, FDN-P, M.Ed, R.H.N

Jess is a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition® Practitioner, Registered Holistic Nutritionist and a trauma-sensitive Family Health Educator specializing in brain health & resilience for kids. She is also a teacher, with a Master's degree in education. Her Calm & Clear Kids introductory course, her Amino Acids (with kids!) Quickstart program, and her signature Resilience Roadmap,  along with her book Raising Resilience, have helped families in at least 44 countries improve the lives of their children with learning differences, anxiety, ADHD, and mood disorders and reduce their reliance on medication. She is the 2019 recipient of the CSNNAA award for Clinical Excellence for her work with families, and she continues to bring an understanding of the 5 Core Needs For Resilient Health to the mainstream conversation about children’s mental health, learning, and overall resilience through her blog, courses, workshops and as a contributor to print and online magazines. 

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The content on this website and in the guides and courses offered here is meant to provide information so that parents can make informed decisions and discuss these issue with their health care teams. It is not intended as, nor should it be considered a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or individualized care.