Measuring your homocysteine levels can be an easy way of measuring your overall health. But what is homocysteine and why should you worry about it?
What is Homocysteine?
Homocysteine is an amino acid, which means that it is simply one of the basic building blocks of proteins. For the most part, we acquire homocysteine by eating meat. Homocysteine is broken down in a process that requires folic acid, and Vitamins B-6 and B-12, creating a direct relationship between the levels of those vitamins and the level of homocysteine found in your blood. While homocysteine is naturally occurring in all humans, high levels of it are associated with a number of risks.
The Dangers of Elevated Homocysteine Levels
Elevated levels of homocysteine can be a significant danger sign, even in young people. High levels of homocysteine are associated with a higher risk of developing heart disease, as well as of stroke, Alzheimer’s, and osteoporosis. It remains unclear how homocysteine acts to increase these risks, but it does appear to be linked with damage to the arteries and blood vessels.
High levels of homocysteine are not extremely common, but do occur in 5-10% of the population. Levels vary widely based on age, diet, gender, and genetics.
Most people with high homocysteine levels don’t show any particular symptoms, but simply carry a higher risk for cardiovascular disease.
How to Lower Homocysteine Levels
If you are concerned about your homocysteine levels, there are several things you can do. Most importantly, you can increase your intake of Vitamins B-6 and B-12 and folic acid. Since these vitamins are necessary for breaking down homocysteine, it is critical that you have adequate amounts of them available. Low levels of folic acid have also been independently linked with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
Another thing you can do if you have high levels of homocysteine in your blood is to increase your intake of dark, leafy greens which are rich in these vitamins. A well balanced diet that is not too heavy on meat is helpful in lowering homcysteine levels.
A less commonly known way of reducing homocysteine levels is by consuming the enzyme betaine homocysteine methyltransferase. Consuming this enzyme has been shown to produce significant reductions in homocysteine levels in the blood. The drug made from betaine typically is only given to those who have a congenital disease resulting in high homocysteine levels.
There are several more common drugs that are also thought to lower homocysteine levels, including: metformin, several anti-seizure medications, nitrous oxide, methyltrexate, and some lipid lowering drugs. These drugs are not used specifically to lower homocysteine levels, but often have that beneficial effect alongside their specified usage.
Currently, testing for homocysteine levels is not widely available and remains expensive, but if you have significant family history of cardiovascular disease, it is worth asking your doctor about.
If you are concerned about your homocysteine levels, talk to your doctor and discuss dietary changes to help keep your homocysteine levels in check.