(The following is a transcription from Mark Anderson’s November 2017 teleconference call with practitioners. It has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)
We want to talk today about the MTHFR (methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase) mutation gene and why this is so important for our consideration. You have heard me say in other classes that sometimes it seems like the main reason for the existence of the nutritional supplement industry is to exploit people’s ignorance and sell them something they don’t need or that might be harmful to them.
We’ve covered this sort of thing recently. Our session last month was about vitamin K2. Since this is something the body manufactures out of vitamin K (K1), why would you ever want or need to take a supplement for a substance that your body makes out of the normal pattern of metabolism when you ingest vitamin K from green vegetables and some animal foods?
Along this line, we’ve considered the antioxidant myth, the five-decades’ long fraud of the whole antioxidant free radical pathology mythology, which I’ve been exposing and teaching about since the 1980s. The nutritional supplement industry massively exploited people’s ignorance of antioxidants until they became the most researched and discredited nutritional theory in history.
The scam I want to warn you about in this talk is one of the most slick and unscientific (in fact, it is bad science) scams going on today: the MTHFR gene and nutritional supplement scam. MTHFR is the abbreviation for the name of the gene because it’s a long, tongue-twisting word. But this gene, which can be tested for, has to do with the genetic ability to absorb and utilize folic acid, a B vitamin.
The research that led the supplement industry to come up with and promote these tests, in order to push their methylated folate supplements, primarily comes from one naturopath named Ben Lynch, a 2007 Bastyr graduate. He is not a geneticist and has no background in genetics, yet he has built a multilevel marketing system—really, a scheme because he pays people to bring in other practitioners to take his courses online.
Ben Lynch, up in the Northwest, is the source of the MTHFR fear scam and genetic testing craze. Virtually all of this testing, which is scaring people away from folic acid supplementation, comes from him. Lynch has built an empire for himself online. Forbes Magazine in 2016 ran a six-page article about Lynch and how your genetic sequence can be, and is, exploited by the supplement industry. Forbes reports:
“He [Lynch] claims to teach how to create a million-dollar online business, as he allegedly did for himself while ‘in medical school.’ And through a pyramid-like incentive scheme, Lynch gives commission to SHEI members who recruit others into buying StrateGene and SHEI products.”
You don’t want to be exploited by anybody, and most of all, you don’t want to exploit your patients. The problem with the particular genetic test for the MTHFR gene (or SNP) is that the methylated folate supplement purports to be a cure for which there is no disease.
If there was a disease state caused by the inability of the body to utilize folic acid, you would have some very serious symptoms and conditions—diseases, if you will—that would be quite obvious and testable.
For example, the genetics department of the Cleveland Clinic, one of the most renowned research hospitals in the world, says:
“But there’s also a cheaper and more accurate way to test for whether MTHFR variations are causing disease. We simply check the levels of homocysteine in the blood. If levels are high, we can react appropriately. If homocysteine levels are normal—even if there is an MTHFR variation—then nothing needs to be done clinically.”
Simply check the homocysteine level in the blood! If the blood levels are elevated with homocysteine, that needs to be corrected. If they are not, nothing needs to be done clinically.
You are all aware that homocysteine is a transient amino acid that occurs primarily in a protein-bound form that forms in the blood of people who can’t metabolize the essential amino acid methionine. And if you can’t metabolize methionine (for which you need B vitamins) properly, the transient free and protein-bound homocysteine builds up in the blood. It can cause more blockage to arteries than cholesterol because it’s a much denser, larger molecule.
Simply stated, if you do not have high homocysteine levels, regardless of what this SNP tells you on a genetic test, you’re not suffering any consequences from it.
By the way, it’s very inexpensive to check homocysteine levels. Any blood laboratory can do it as a standalone for under $70, less if you’re adding it to a general blood test, where the MTHFR genetic testing runs into the hundreds.
In a complete blood test, if you really had this mutation causing a disease, you would also show a low red blood cell count because folic acid and folate is responsible for the synthesis of DNA to form red blood cells in the body. That is why we call folic acid the alpha point of red blood cell creation, as we call vitamin B12 the omega point (the end-point) of red blood cell creation.
Between folic acid and B12 we have the birth and maturation of red blood cells. If you don’t have or you’re not utilizing folic acid, you’re not creating the beginning point of red blood cell creation. That means your RBC level would be low in a blood test. Your hematocrit, which expresses the percentage of red blood cells in your blood by volume, would also be low. Therefore, if you have a very low hematocrit, if you have very low RBC, one of the causes—not the only, but one of them—is a folic acid, or folate, deficiency.
If you have a genetic inability to utilize folic acid, which by no means is assured by virtue of this SNP, this MTHFR gene, chances are you would have died a long time ago from anemia by lack of red blood cell creation. Or bone marrow failure due to lack of folic acid.
The Cleveland Clinic says there is no reason to test for this. And the Mayo Clinic, which also does a lot of genetic testing, agrees. Did you ever hear of a medical center that does not want to run a test on you? From what I have seen, they would gladly test men for pregnancy if the insurance would cover it. Yet they do not recommend the MTHFR test because the direct analysis of the MTHFR gene mutation should only be reserved for patients with increased homocysteine levels. In fact, the Mayo Clinic runs very few tests for this, though it is an easy test for them to run. In other words, don’t start curing yourself for something for which you don’t have a disease.
I caution you about this naturopath, Ben Lynch. He may be a perfectly nice guy—I don’t know him, I never met him. He may be sincere. Maybe sincerely wrong. But I have watched his videos on YouTube, and it’s quite alarming to see the bad information he puts out there. Forbes Magazine is accurate in saying he has built himself an empire in his multilevel marketing company. Forbes actually calls it a “pyramid-like scheme” because Lynch wants you to start taking this threat so seriously that you get all of your colleagues to sign up, and then you get all kinds of wonderful feedback in the way of kickbacks from his website.
Methylated folate, the recommended cure for this SNP, is a perfectly good nutrient. That is, if you get it from natural foods, such as lettuces, spinach, asparagus, and all kinds of greens. Turnip greens are high, and mustard greens, parsley, collards, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, beet tops, and lentils are all good sources. I could go on and on. Nature has never been stingy with folic acid in the methylated form. But in nature, doses of methylated folate are very low. The amount of folate in these foods is also quite low compared to supplemental dosages.
One of the things that Lynch has had to deal with is the side effects of the synthetic methylated supplement. And here’s why: a person only needs a few hundred micrograms. Remember, a microgram (mcg or μg) is a thousandth of a milligram. A milligram is a one thousandth of a gram. You only need between 300 and 500 mcg (or in some cases, such as pregnancy, 800 mcg) of folate a day. The problem is that if you start getting much more than that, it can come with some serious side effects.
This, by the way, is what a lot of people are experiencing right now. So many people are getting so many bad side effects from methylated folate supplement products that it is quite alarming.
Methylated folic acid is a synthetic product made by one company in Germany. The name of that company, of course, is well known to you: Merck. The product is 100 percent synthetic, and they recommend that you never take more than one milligram a day as a general rule. Yet side effects are still experienced because many of the companies I looked up are producing supplements way above that dose as “methylated folate supplements.” A lot of them are ten, fifteen, thirty milligrams per tablet, and you might be instructed to take two or three tablets a day. Holistic health professionals are actually recommending these levels.
Even Ben Lynch, on his own MTHFR.net website, lists under side effects: nausea, dizziness, frequent urination, inability to hold water without peeing very quickly, muscle aches, muscle spasm, insatiable thirst, dry skin. That’s why he must deal with a lot of people who show up on his blog complaining about all of the side effects they’re getting from his methylated folate supplement. As I say, 100 percent of it comes from Merck in Germany. (By the way, the name of synthetic methylated folate is Metafolin. At this time, 100 percent of supplements with methylated folate is Metafolin. It is sold under different names in products in this country.)
Ben Lynch, ND on methylfolate side effects.
Just like when antioxidants were the rage, and it was an arms race to get the highest levels and highest dosages, now people are trying to make you want to buy their methylated folate. Manufacturers keep putting more in the tablets, and consumers are experiencing more nausea, more dizziness, fluid imbalances, frequent insatiable thirst (which could make you think you’re developing diabetes), frequent urination, and tremendous sweating. It’s severely upsetting the electrolyte balance—so much so that on the MTHFR.net website you can see that up to 40 percent of Lynch’s patients are reporting these serious side effects. That’s why he keeps telling people to take less and less.
Of course, when you start to take less and less, you will get down to the same amount you would get in a natural food, but in its natural complex and methylated form. If you get the amount of methylated folate that you would get from eating, let’s say, mustard greens, kale, broccoli, or brussels sprouts, you are getting it in the natural state, not the synthetic state. You are completely fine without side effects because you are not pushing the methylated folate and unbalancing your other B vitamins: your B12, your vitamin B6, your thiamine (B1), your riboflavin (B2), and your niacinamide (B3). When you take this doctor-prescribed, super-high amount of the synthetic methylated folate, you’re really putting your patient at a high side-effect risk.
Who wants a patient complaining about severe side effects from a supplement you recommended? I Googled “methylfolate side effects,” and I got 80,000 results. The first link that comes up lists “mood changes, depression, irritability, severe anxiety, pain, sore muscles, joint aches, headaches, migraines. Physical symptoms: rash, acne, heart palpations, nausea, insomnia.” And this is from a doctor’s website. Sounds an awful lot like the prescription drug ads on TV.
Then you go to the Ben Lynch MTHFR.net website (which happens to be the second one in the Google search) and click on “side effects.” What’s the first sentence? I guess he’s trying to avoid the inside of a courtroom because the very first sentence is: “Methyl folate is a remarkable nutrient, yet it can create significant side effects.” It can cause a lot of harm, he says, and you need to take a very low amount and build up. Then he lists the symptoms of irritability, insomnia, sore muscles, achy joints, acne, rash, anxiety, palpitation, nausea—the same things that other websites are listing.
The only folic acid supplement Standard Process makes is Folic Acid B12. But folic acid occurs naturally in methylated form in many of our products. For instance, Cruciferous Complete, SP Green Food, and any food that has chlorophyll in it, like Betafood, which contains the juice of green beet leaves. These would be rich in the methyl donors but in natural food-level dosages. But if you don’t have the pronounced conditions that would flow from a true inability to utilize folic acid, such as elevated homocysteine, various types of anemia, low hematocrit (as we talked about), and low red blood cells, then you’re not bothered by this MTHFR variation. Again, we don’t want to take a high amount of a supplement for which we are not deficient.
Now you can see that those clinics on the forefront of genetic testing—the Cleveland Clinic, the Mayo Clinic—are absolutely unimpressed with, and don’t bother with, the MTHFR mutation SNP without downstream signs of folic acid deficiency. They’re well aware of it. It’s on all their websites. But they reserve it only for people who have severe problems with high homocysteine levels, or various kinds of anemia like low hematocrit or low red blood cells, because they’re not creating enough.
Ben Lynch has just literally created—I hate to use the word, but I think it does apply in this case—a cult. And to me, the antioxidant free radical pathology theory of longevity was a cult. Many of those doctors who wasted generations of alternative medicine on the antioxidant hoax are now whole hog into the MTHFR gene scam. You never seem to hear about antioxidants anymore because one large-scale study after another—times ten—proved that it made people sicker, not healthier. Always those taking the highest amount of antioxidants had the highest all-cause mortality rates.
I want to strongly caution you against getting sucked into this whole methylated folate supplement thing. By the way, we looked at our Standard Process formulas that naturally contain methylated folate. We don’t put the amount on the label because we don’t sell the product as a methylated folate supplement. For example, Betafood is made from the vacuum-dried juice of green beet leaves from beets we grow on our own organic farm at Standard Process in Wisconsin. It contains naturally occurring methyl donor forms of many B vitamins. But we don’t measure them and put it on the label because every crop would vary based upon rainfall, sunshine, and the number of days the crop was in the field, etc. You would always get slight variations. And every single batch would have to be retested at enormous expense.
As if that were not enough, we would have to print separate labels for every batch because the number of methylated folate would be a bit different for each batch. That would make the product much more expensive to your patients.
It is the ingrained pharmaceutical consciousness that distorts our view of therapeutic nutrition and corrupts the industry in the form of nutraceutical thinking. Using nutrient variants to force metabolic pathways the way that drugs do is a path that loops directly back to pharmaceutical perspectives. That is not alternative, complementary, or holistic. It is like the ancient symbol of the Ouroboros, the serpent devouring its own tail—believing something is different when, in reality, it is the same.