By Dr. Ben Kim
As a general marker of overall health status, few tests carry greater predictive weight than homocysteine.
The amount of homocysteine in your blood is one of the best objective indicators of how healthy you are and how long you are going to live.
A high blood level of homocysteine is a reliable risk factor for each of the following:
- Myocardial infarction (heart attack)
- Cerebrovascular accident (stroke)
- Thyroid-related health challenges
- Neurological conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s
- Chronic Pain
- Digestive Disorders
What exactly is homocysteine?
Homocysteine is an amino acid that your body makes from another amino acid called methionine. You obtain methionine from many of the protein-dense foods that you eat on a regular basis, such as sunflower seeds, eggs, and fish.
Normally, homocysteine found in your blood gets converted into two substances called SAMe (S-adenosyl methionine) and glutathione. Both SAMe and glutathione have health-promoting effects. Specifically, SAMe helps to prevent depression, arthritis, and liver damage. Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant and detoxifying agent that helps to slow down aging.
Put another way, you want your body to efficiently convert homocysteine into SAMe and glutathione.
Conversion of homocysteine to SAMe requires the following nutrients:
And conversion of homocysteine to glutathione requires the following nutrients:
When your body does not efficiently convert homocysteine into SAMe and glutathione, the amount of homocysteine in your blood rises.
A high blood level of homocysteine hurts your health in the following ways:
- High Homocysteine Speeds Up Oxidation and AgingNormal metabolic processes that occur in your body are constantly producing free radicals, which are unstable forms of oxygen, also called oxidants. The pace at which you age depends in large part on your body’s ability to protect its tissues against these free radicals. High homocysteine significantly increases free-radical oxidation in your body and the damage that comes with it.
- High Homocysteine Causes Damage to Your ArteriesHigh blood levels of homocysteine can damage cholesterol that is found in your blood, which can lead to direct damage of the walls of your arteries. This can lead to a series of reactions that results in thickening of the walls of your arteries, leaving less room for proper circulation. This whole process is commonly referred to as atherosclerosis.
High homocysteine can also cause your blood to have a higher than normal tendency to clot, which increases your risk of developing a dangerous clot that could lead to a stroke.
Finally, high homocysteine is known to significantly lower nitric oxide in your blood. Nitric oxide is a gas that is critical to maintaining healthy and flexible arterial walls.
- High Homocysteine Causes Your Immune System to WeakenWhen a high blood level of homocysteine is the result of inefficient conversion of homocysteine to glutathione, your body has less glutathione and the antioxidant activity that it provides. With less glutathione and antioxidant activity in your blood, your cells are more susceptible to damage by free radicals, which accelerates overall aging.
- High Homocysteine Increases Pain and InflammationA high blood level of homocysteine promotes higher blood levels of arachidonic acid and prostaglandin E2 (PGE2), which are chemicals that your body uses to promote inflammation. While inflammation is necessary for healing in the short term, chronic inflammation can cause lasting structural damage to various tissues like your arteries, joints, and nerves.
Ultimately, because a high blood level of homocysteine accelerates aging and decreases the strength of your immune system, it is not a stretch to say that having high homocysteine over the long term significantly increases your risk of every chronic health condition that we know of, including many varieties of cancer.
If homocysteine is such a powerful marker for disease, then why is it that we hear so little about it from doctors and in the media?
The answer is simple. Currently, there are no patented drugs that are designed to lower blood levels of homocysteine. With no patented drugs for lowering homocysteine, pharmaceutical companies have no incentive to spend their marketing dollars on educating doctors and increasing public awareness about homocysteine. Some doctors who know about the diagnostic value of homocysteine may be reluctant to order this test for their patients because they wouldn’t know what to prescribe for patients who have high levels.
Despite the lack of widespread testing for homocysteine, many cardiologists in the United States now use homocysteine in evaluating their patients. Many doctors in Europe are starting to include homocysteine along with the usual parameters in a routine blood work up. In Canada, general practitioners rarely order a blood test for homocysteine; if you want one, you have to ask your doctor to include it on the requisition that details the blood work that he or she wants done.
So, what is a healthy blood level for homocysteine?
A good resource for information on homocysteine is The H-Factor Solution*, by Dr. James Braly and Patrick Holford. Based on their review of numerous epidemiological studies on homocysteine, they have come up with the following table:
Below 6 units
10 percent of population
6 to 8.9 units
35 percent of population
9 to 11.9 units
20 percent of population
12 to 14.9 units
20 percent of population
15 to 19.9 units
10 percent of population
Greater than 20 units
Extremely high risk, right now, of heart attack and stroke.
What can you do if your homocysteine is high?
Here are steps that you can take immediately to reduce your homocysteine score and significantly improve your health:
- Eat mainly healthy fats and oils.
- Strive to make vegetables at least fifty percent of your diet.
- Eat high-quality protein, foods like organic eggs, wild fish, legumes, dark green vegetables, and small amounts of nuts and seeds.
- Don’t drink more than one cup of caffeinated coffee or tea per day.
- Have no more than one cup of beer or red wine per day.
- Work at reducing stress.
- Don’t smoke.
- Go easy on salt and salty foods. When you must use some salt, use small amounts of mineral-dense sea salt.
- Be sure to have reliable whole food sources of the following nutrients in your diet:
To learn about a whole food supplement formula that I have found to be helpful for lowering homocysteine, have a look here: Homocysteine Care.
While I consider The H-Factor Solution to be an excellent resource for information on homocysteine, I encourage you to read my article on synthetic vs. natural vitamins before you follow the authors’ recommendations on supplementation.