Friday, March 4, 2011

Homocysteine and Chronic Disease

Homocysteine is an amino acid naturally produced by the cells in the body. It converts into the amino acid methionine. It plays a role in body processes including cell and tissue growth, bone growth, and insulin formation. Homocysteine requires adequate supplies of vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and folic acid. SAMe and glutathione are made from the amino acid methionine in our diet to metabolize. If the conversion process is blocked in any way, homocysteine levels increase. High homocysteine levels are associated with many chronic diseases including heart disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, and diabetes. 

What Causes Homocysteine Levels to Rise?
Homocysteine can’t be effectively converted to other compounds, including methionine and cysteine, when vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and folic acid are deficient. When these supplements are in short supply, homocysteine levels then rise in the blood. This build up of homocysteine in the blood was discovered to increase the formation of plagues on the blood vessel walls and eventually clogging and hardening the blood vessels, therefore, increasing the risk of heart disease. In a study conducted by the European Concerted Action Group, 750 people under the age of sixty with atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) were compared with 800 people without evidence of heart disease. The study found that having high blood levels of homocysteine was as risky as having high blood levels of cholesterol or smoking (Holford, 2004, p.205). Having low cholesterol doesn’t necessarily mean that homocysteine levels are low which is why those at risk should be tested. High homocysteine levels have also been associated with increased risk of strokes, depression, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and certain cancers (Holford, 2004, p.137). Researchers at the University of Alabama found elevated homocysteine levels increases woman’s risk of cervical dysplasia, a precancerous condition, and other factors associated with cervical dysplasia, such as HPV (human papillomavirus) (Somer, 2006, p.266).

The following is a list of risk factors associated with rise in homocysteine levels:

A. Personal and Family Medical History Risks
  1. Family history of heart disease, strokes, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, or diabetes
  2. Increasing in age
  3. Male gender (sorry guys)
  4. History of inflammatory bowel diseases
  5. History of H pylori-generated ulcers
B. Lifestyle risks

  1. Smoking
  2. Lack of exercise
  3. Hostility and repressed anger
  4. Estrogen deficiency

C. Nutritional Risks
  1. Folic acid intake of less than 900 mcg per day. This is very important during pregnancy.
  2. Excessive alcohol, coffee, and tea consumption
  3. Being on a strict vegetarian or vegan diet if not watching nutritional intake
  4. High salt intake
  5. High fat intake
  6. Excessive meat consumption, especially red meat

How are High Homocysteine Levels Identified in Individuals?

Homocysteine is measured in mmol/l with levels as low as 7 units linked to disease. Levels of 10 units or above is considered high risk whereas levels of 6 units or lower is considered very low risk (Holford, 2004, p. 142). If you have any, and especially many, of the risk factors above, you are strongly urged to be tested.

The following is a list of dietary recommendations that may aid in reducing homocysteine levels:

  1. Substitute red meat for broiled fish or vegetable protein. Broiled fish should be eaten two to three times per week. Soy based foods (organic only to avoid GMOs), such as tofu and tempeh, or beans, such as baked beans, chickpeas, and azuki beans, should be eaten five or six times per week.
  2. Eat at least six servings of fruits and vegetables per day in a variety of colors.
  3. Drink no more than one cup of coffee or black tea per day. Herbal teas, water, and diluted juices are fine.
  4. Add garlic to food frequently. May also be taken in supplement form.
  5. Don’t add salt to food. Use spices and herbs to flavor foods.
  6. Limit alcohol consumption to one glass of wine or one pint of beer per day with no more than four per week.

Lifestyle Change Recommendations for Reducing Homocysteine Level
  1. Reduce stress levels by adding daily meditation or yoga to your routine. If unhappy in your career, change your job to something you are passionate about or see a career counselor. See a counselor for relationship issues or other unresolved issues in your life.
  2. Move! Go for walks. Go to the gym. Whatever it takes to move. Move!
  3. Stop smoking if you currently smoke.
  4. Balance estrogen levels if deficient. Have hormone levels (estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone) checked by a medical practitioner with a hormone saliva test for or you may use a natural progesterone cream as directed on label. The body can convert progesterone to estrogen if levels are deficient (Holford, 2004, p. 144).

In addition, nutritional supplement recommended for reducing homocysteine levels include a good quality multi-vitamin with minerals, B-complex, Vitamin C, Zinc, B12, B6, TMG – trimethyl glycine, and folic acid. 

Note: See your regular physician for a checkup before starting any diet or nutritional program, exercise program, or making major lifestyle changes.


1. Haas, E.M. M.D., (2006), Staying Healthy with Nutrition: The Complete Guide to Diet and Nutritional Medicine, Berkeley: Celestial Arts

2. Holford, P., (2004), The New Optimum Nutrition Bible, Berkeley: Crossing Press

3. Roizen, M.F. M.D., & Oz, M.C. M.D. (2007), You Staying Young: The Owner’s Manual for Extending Your Warranty, New York: Free Press

4. Somer, E.S. M.A., R.D. (2003), Nutrition for Women: How Eating Right Can Help You Look and Feel Your Best, New York: Henry Holt and Company






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