The importance of homocysteine as a risk factor is becoming much more familiar to us. A constantly increasing number of studies have been published that show homocysteine to be a predictor of potential health problems. It is clear now that raised plasma homocysteine concentrations both predict and precede the development of cardiovascular disease including stroke. A study published in the British Medical Journal showed clearly homocysteine level in blood plasma predicts risk of death from cardiovascular disease in older people even better than any conventional measure of risk including cholesterol, blood pressure or smoking. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in April of 2006, found that among women with heart disease, those with elevated homocysteine levels were more than four times more likely to die from it than women whose homocysteine levels were normal.
Raised levels of homocysteine are also linked to Alzheimer’s, dementia, declining memory, poor concentration and judgment and lowered mood. Women with high homocysteine levels find it harder to conceive and are at risk from repeated early miscarriage. High homocysteine has also been linked to migraines, and those with conditions such as diabetes and osteoporosis are at increased risk of raised homocysteine levels. Homocysteine has therefore been shown to play a crucial role as a key marker for disease development determining longevity and health throughout a person’s life.
Homocysteine is a natural occurring amino acid and breakdown product of protein metabolism. Elevated homocysteine levels are thought to contribute to plaque formation by damaging arterial walls. High levels may also act on blood platelets and increase the risks of clot formation. One mechanism by which homocysteine is thought to cause this damage is by interfering with the way cells use oxygen, resulting in a build-up of damaging free radicals. Oxidation triggers many diseases including heart disease, strokes, cancers and autoimmune diseases. Raised levels are also associated with chronic inflammatory diseases in general, and some intestinal disorders such as coeliac and Crohn’s diseases.
In addition, some evidence suggests that people with elevated homocysteine levels have twice the normal risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Elevated homocysteine can cause harm such as vascular damage, cognitive impairment, neurological complications, congenital defects and pregnancy complications.
An inadequate intake of B vitamins, as well as genetic factors that affect the body’s absorption and use of folic acid can lead to elevated homocysteine levels. Blood levels of homocysteine tend to be highest in people who eat a lot of animal protein and consume few fruits and leafy vegetables, which provide the folic acid and other B vitamins that help the body rid itself of homocysteine.
Other contributors to elevated homocysteine levels include stress, smoking, prescription drugs, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, poor thyroid function and coffee consumption. The more coffee you drink, the higher your homocysteine levels are likely to be. The stress-induced neurotransmitters epinephrine and norepinephrine are metabolized in the liver via a process that uses methyl groups. This can also increase the need for folic acid. In addition, elevated homocysteine levels may be due to low levels of thyroid hormone, kidney disease, psoriasis and some medications. As with cholesterol, family history and genetic make-up can play a part in causing raised levels as can obesity and lack of exercise. Even people with an active, healthy lifestyle may still be at risk, if there is a family history of high levels of homocysteine or disease.