Do you know that there is a connection between homocysteine and your heart and brain health?
Homocysteine is a type of amino acid (building block of protein) that is produced by the human body during protein metabolism. It is not obtained from the diet. The body makes homocysteine from the amino acid methionine in the diet via a multi-stage process. After that, the body uses folate (vitamin B9), vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 to recycle homocysteine back into methionine or convert it into another amino acid cysteine.
At normal levels, homocysteine is neither dangerous nor unhealthy. But when homocysteine is not properly metabolized, it builds up inside the body and acts like a toxin. Elevated homocysteine levels cause inflammation to rise, damage the lining of the arteries, and increase the risk of blood clot formation, resulting in blockages.
A clot inside the blood vessel is called a thrombus. A thrombus can travel in the bloodstream and get stuck in the lungs (a pulmonary embolism), in the brain (a stroke), or in the heart (a heart attack). People who have abnormally high levels of homocysteine are at an increased risk for coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, and abnormal cholesterol levels.
Many studies have shown that raised levels of homocysteine is detrimental to the brain too. Elevated homocysteine damages DNA and induces cell death, which leads to brain atrophy or shrinkage in dementia. It increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other mental abnormalities such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
What Causes High Homocysteine
Most adults do not know that they have elevated homocysteine as there may not be any symptoms. A simple blood test can determine your status. However, doctors do not routinely order the test unless patients have a family history of heart disease. Hence, you may want to ask your doctor about it.
- Optimal level is below 8 umo/L.
- A reading above 10 umo/L is considered high and is associated with increased heart attack risk.
- Above 15 umo/L, it is a medical condition called hyperhomocysteinemia. At these levels, the prevalence of dementia, along with cognitive and functional impairment is almost double.
High homocysteine may be caused by a number of factors –
To maintain normal levels of homocysteine, the body requires folate, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 obtained from the diet. Deficiencies in these vitamins may lead to increased levels.
People born with the MTHFR (methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase) gene mutation produce less of the enzymes that are normally used for metabolizing homocysteine. This metabolic disorder is like an enzyme defect and is passed from parents to children. It is estimated that up to 30-50 percent of the population may carry a mutation in this MTHFR gene. The severity and type of symptoms vary from person to person depending on how much fewer enzymes a person produces as a result of the MTHFR mutation. The reduction may range from 10-30 percent to as much as 70-90 percent.
Individuals with the MTHFR mutation are likely to have higher homocysteine levels, increased inflammation and risk of heart disease, diabetes, birth defects, difficult pregnancies, anxiety and depression, fatigue, and an impaired ability to detoxify.
Stress-induced neurotransmitters – epinephrine and norepinephrine – are metabolized in the liver via a process that also uses folate. As a result, chronic high stress may result in a depletion of this critical B vitamin that is key to maintaining normal levels of homocysteine.
Too much animal protein
High consumption of animal protein, especially unhealthy processed red meats like cold cuts, bacon, and canned meats from factory-farmed animals, may lead to high homocysteine levels.
Drinking too much coffee and energy drinks may deplete the body of vital B vitamins, which are essential for normal homocysteine metabolism.
How To Keep Homocysteine Levels In Check
Improve Your Diet
High homocysteine not only increases inflammation, but also makes it harder for the body to detoxify the accumulated chemicals, heavy metals, and toxins. Therefore, by eating healthier foods, you can lessen the burden a bad diet imposes on your body.
- Reduce intake of inflammatory foods such as sugar, deep-fried foods, processed meats, meats from factory-farmed animals, conventional dairy, vegetable oils, trans fats, and preservatives. Eat mostly organic, unprocessed foods.
- Get plenty of antioxidants to combat the inflammation by having more vegetables of different colors or drinking vegetable juice daily.
- Cut back on caffeine and alcohol. Too much caffeine increases homocysteine levels and alcohol is inflammatory.
- Focus on healthy fats such as coconut oil and milk, olive oil, grass-fed butter and meats, wild-caught Alaskan salmon, sardines, avocado, nuts and seeds.
- Increase consumption of fermented foods as the supply of good bacteria can help reduce inflammation in the body. Examples include fermented vegetables like sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles, unsweetened yogurt and kefir, kombucha, and tempeh.
Get Enough Folate
Folate, also known as vitamin B9, is naturally found in foods such as beans, legumes, liver, spinach, asparagus, avocado, broccoli, and beets.
Folate primarily helps the body make new cells, specifically by playing a role in copying and synthesizing DNA. It also helps the body utilize vitamin B12 and amino acids. If you do not have the habit of eating vegetables everyday, you may run the risk of a folate deficiency. Symptoms include –
- elevated homocysteine levels
- poor immune function
- poor digestion
- ulcers on the tongue
- changes in hair or skin pigmentation
- birth defects
Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate found in lower quality supplements and “fortified foods” such as orange juice and refined grains.
For those individuals with the MTHFR mutation, your bodies will not be able to convert folic acid into folate. If you have been taking folic acid supplements and your homocysteine levels are still high, this may be the reason. Therefore, you should either get more folate from the diet or take the active form of folate supplements instead. Look for 5-MTHF (5-methyl-tetrahydrofolate) on the label. Avoid products that say “folic acid”.
Have Adequate Vitamin B6
Vitamin B6 is also known as pyridoxine. Best food sources are turkey breast, chicken breast, grass-fed beef, pinto beans, chickpeas, avocado, pistachio, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, and amaranth grain.
Vitamin B6 is needed to –
- regulate homocysteine levels within the blood
- maintain healthy blood vessels
- manage blood pressure and cholesterol levels
- support brain function and mood
- help treat anemia
- protect eye and skin health
- prevent or reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis
For people living in the western world, it is rather rare to have a vitamin B6 deficiency as most people consume enough calories and are not experiencing malnourishment.
Get Enough Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12, also called cyanocobalamin, is found mostly in animal foods such as beef and chicken liver, seafood, and meats.
- For this reason, vegans and plant-based eaters are more likely to develop a vitamin B12 deficiency. Unfortunately, algae foods, such as blue-green algae, which are popular among vegans are not a very absorbable source of vitamin B12.
- Elderly people who have impaired digestion are also more susceptible for deficiency because they tend to produce less stomach acid that is needed to convert vitamin B12 properly.
- Other high risk groups include smokers, alcoholics, those with anemia, and digestive disorders like celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, gastritis, or other stomach and small intestinal disorders.
Vitamin B12 benefits your mood, energy level, memory, heart, skin, hair, digestion, hormonal balance and more. Therefore, a deficiency can show up in many different symptoms, such as chronic fatigue, mood changes, poor memory, joint pain, muscle aches, heart problems like palpitations, or feeling run down.
As a supplement, vitamin B12 can be taken in tablet form, in drops that you place under the tongue, or in oral spray form. Sometimes, seniors do better with drops and oral sprays as they have trouble absorbing the vitamin from the stomach.
All B vitamins are water-soluble, that means the body has the ability to flush out any excess through the urine. Hence, B vitamins are considered safe and non-toxic.
Maintain A High Omega-3 Status
Studies have shown that homocysteine-lowering B vitamins require healthy omega-3 blood levels to derive the cognitive benefits. When omega-3 levels are low, the B vitamins have no effect.
Therefore, to protect your brain from premature aging, make sure you have enough B vitamins and omega-3s. Eat several servings of mercury-free fish such as wild Alaskan salmon, sardines, and herrings every week, or take a high quality omega-3 supplement daily.
Regular physical activity helps lower inflammation, manage stress levels, and improve sleep quality, immune function, hormonal balance, and body weight control. Find a type of activity you enjoy and stick with it. People who exercise into their old age tend to have better quality of life.