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Homocysteine

By
Lynne Brown
BSc Hons, HDE, Dip Clin Nutr

Still focusing on heart health

Pronounced homo-sis-teen, it's a naturally-occurring, sulphur containing amino acid made by your body and created from the normal breakdown of animal proteins. However, too high levels contribute to heart disease, strokes and other health complications through injuring and thickening the wall of the arteries and increasing the risk of abnormal blood clotting.

History

The history of homocysteine is a fascinating one, beginning with the career of Dr Kilmer McCully, a researcher who graduated from Harvard Medical School in the mid-1960s and came up with the hypothesis that moderate elevations of homocysteine could lead to heart attacks and strokes. Unfortunately for Mc Cully, he had the right idea but the wrong era. It was the time that the cholesterol-heart-attack theory was gaining tremendous momentum and Mc Cully’s hypothesis clearly challenged its future. He found himself moved down to the basement, funding for his research dried up and he was eventually asked to leave Harvard.

Homocysteine theory revived

It was not until the mid 90’s, thanks mainly to the work of Dr Meir Stampfer, a professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, that researchers accepted as fact that homocysteine was indeed an independent risk factor. It is believed that homocysteine increases the stickiness of platelets in your blood stream, making them more likely to cause clots. And it's this same stickiness that may help oxidized cholesterol stick to your artery walls too. It is also believed that homocysteine contributes to the hardening of artery walls-making them less able to widen and increase blood flow.

Increased risks

Now it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what happens next if you stick enough oxidized cholesterol to an artery wall lacking the ability to widen enough to let the blood flow. It is now generally accepted that high levels of homocysteine are associated with up to 80% increased risk of a heart attack or stroke (even if your cholesterol is OK), double the risk of Alzheimer’s, increased risk for diabetes, obesity, depression, schizophrenia, pregnancy problems – in fact there are over 100 diseases associated with high homocysteine levels.

A simple solution

Of course this sounds depressing, but fortunately we know that this is one of the easiest health problems to rectify. If your homocysteine level is high, there is a combination of nutrients and dietary changes that can bring you back into the healthy zone. The enzymes needed to break down homocysteine need folic acid, vitamin B12 and vitamin B6 to do their job. A couple of months of supplementing with these nutrients should bring your homocysteine down to an acceptable level.

Help from foods

You can find folate, or folic acid, in many fruits, vegetables and wholegrains
Good sources of vitamin B6 include whole grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, bananas, brown rice and avocados.
Vitamin B12 is found in animal foods such as liver, kidneys, eggs, fish, cheese and meat, however, be wary of increasing your intake of these foods since it is the breakdown of these same animal proteins that brings about the homocysteine in the first place.
Strict vegetarians are often deficient in vitamin B12, and hence at risk of having high homocysteine levels because the vitamin B12 present in plant foods is not of the form that meets our bodies requirements.  If you do not eat any animal products whatsoever then you would do well to have your homocysteine levels checked.

Take the test

If you had to measure one thing only to determine your health, it would probably be best to measure homocysteine. Recent research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has shown "A strong relation was found between homocysteine and all causes of mortality." In a study published in the October 3 2002 issue of Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association, researchers from Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland have found that having moderately high homocysteine is associated with three times the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and five times the risk of stroke and vascular dementia compared to those with healthier levels of this toxic amino acid.

Is there a healthy level?

Unlike cholesterol, which performs a very important function in the body, homocysteine provides no health benefits. There is no threshold below which homocysteine becomes okay. You want it to be as low as possible. Most labs will tell you the normal range is between 5 and 15 micromols per litre of blood, however research has shown that levels above 7 micromols/litre are indicative of increased risk of heart disease.

The economics of medicine

Wondering why there are no TV or newspaper ads informing you about the importance of lowering your homocysteine as there are about cholesterol? There’s a simple answer to this:  there is no money to be made by pharmaceutical companies in selling vitamin B6, B12 and folic acid. Sad to say we are caught in the ripple effects of the economics of medicine. Could this be why Dr Kilmer McCully lost his research funds and his job at Harvard?

Disclaimer: All information here is for educational purposes only and is not meant to cure, heal, diagnose nor treat. This information must not be used as a replacement for medical advice, nor can the writer take any responsibility for anyone using the information instead of consulting a healthcare professional.  All serious disease needs a physician.

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