Understanding homocysteine and its effects on your blood
Have you heard of the term homocysteine? Are you aware that homocysteine levels in your body can have some profound effects upon your health?
The fact of the matter is that most of us are not even aware of this crucial amino acid, or of its important functions and health ramifications.
Here is what you need to know about homocysteine, its effects on your health, and the importance of screening for safe levels of it.
What is Homocysteine?
Homocysteine is an amino acid which is essential for your health, and needs to be kept within a normal range of levels. It is produced by the body, as opposed to coming from a food source, and is produced when another amino acid called methionine is broken down.
When elevated levels of it appear in the blood—something which can be caused by such things as alcoholism (because this leads to poor vitamin intake and absorption), inadequate diet or genetics—it can cause hardening of the arteries, blood clots, and stroke.
It is also known to be an independent risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, and it is estimated that as many as 75% of Alzheimer’s and dementia cases could possibly be avoided by lowering excessively high homocysteine levels. In fact in USA and Canada there are so called government mandated folate-fortification programs in view of reducing the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease.
When to Have Your Homocysteine Levels Tested
Vitamin B12, folic acid (AKA vitamin B9) and vitamin B6 are necessary in the production of homocysteine in the body. Low levels of these important vitamins can lead to abnormally high homocysteine levels (hyperhomocysteinemia).
Elevated levels, for example, have shown connections with heart attack, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease.
And, those who consume alcohol, are vegan, consume excess caffeine or other diuretics, or who consume a lot of meat should be aware of their homocysteine levels, and consider having them checked more often than those who do not fit these descriptions.
Genetics can also influence homocysteine levels, and family history should also be considered in testing frequency. Anyone in your family with either elevated homocysteine, homocystinuria, or any abnormality with the methionine/cysteine pathway, may increase your likelihood of developing hyperhomocysteinemia.
And, for those who experienced a heart attack or stroke, but have no apparent conditions to have caused it—such as high serum lipid levels or diabetes—it is imperative that homocysteine levels are checked as a part of treatment and recovery.
Once you are under treatment for elevated homocysteine (like with vitamin B12 and folic acid supplements) it would be recommended to retest your homocysteine levels in 2 months time and see if your doctor needs to readjust the dosage of the supplement. To be sure, you should consider adding simple blood tests looking at your vitamin B12 and folic acid levels at the same time.
Another critical condition which can affect your health is homocystinuria, which is a genetic disorder of methionine metabolism which leads to elevated homocysteine levels in the blood.
Even though most symptoms of homocystinuria will appear within the first few years of life, some milder cases may not become apparent until later in life. And, due to this, it is critical that it be identified and treated as early as possible, making screening at birth highly recommended for those with a genetic predisposition. In fact, in most developed countries, newborn are screened routinely for metabolic and genetic diseases (including homocystinuria).
Some people experience symptoms during adulthood, but they tend to be vague and difficult to detect: myopia, dislocation of the eye’s lens, osteoporosis, skeletal abnormalities and blood clotting.
Elevated levels of homocysteine are nothing to take lightly, since ignoring such a condition can lead to everything from heart attack and stroke, to Alzheimer’s disease and osteoporosis.
Fortunately for most people, treatment of hyperhomocysteinemia can be as simple as a change in diet or the use of a vitamin supplement for vitamin B6, B12, and folic acid.
Most developed countries screen newborns routinely for genetic and metabolic disease, including homocystinuria. Please ask your local health adviser (midwife) to see if this is the case, and screen proactively if you have an elevated chance (someone in the family suffers from homocystinuria).
It is, after all, your health – take care of it!
If you’re interested in learning more about homocysteine and how it affects your body, read on more about it in our biomarker post here!