By Mary-Ann Shearer
What is homocysteine (HC)?
Homocysteine (say: “ho-mo-sist-een”) is an amino acid (a building block of protein) that is produced in the human body from an essential amino acid called Methionine. Homocysteine is classed as an ‘unnatural ‘amino acid in the sense that it does not occur in food.
How is a high homocysteine level harmful?
- Homocysteine may irritate blood vessels, leading to blockages in the arteries (called atherosclerosis). It damages protective endothelium, which lines the inside of blood vessels, this can create a weak spot where cholesterol and other fats can be deposited.
- High homocysteine levels in the blood can also cause cholesterol to change to something called oxidized low-density lipoprotein sometimes referred to as oxycholesterol, which is more damaging to the arteries. This oxidation process can also speed up the ageing process.
- In addition, high homocysteine levels can make blood clot more easily than it should, increasing the risk of blood vessel blockages. A blockage might cause you to have a stroke or a problem with blood flow.
- Some research indicates that the Immune System can be weakened, the brain can become less efficient and age faster, the hormonal system can be upset resulting in myriads of problems and you can suffer from depression due to a deficiency in certain nutrients called methyl donors such as SAMe.
There are in fact over 100 medical conditions that can be associated with high homocysteine levels from spontaneous abortion, to Alzheimer’s disease, Ankylosing spondilitis and other forms of arthritis, breast cancer, cancer in general, Cirrhosis of the liver, Coeliac Disease, Crohn’s disease, Dementia, Diabetes, Fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue, HIV/Aids, Methylmalonic acid elevation with homocystinuria, schizophrenia, sleep problems, Thyroid disease, Ulcerative colitis etc.
What causes a high homocysteine level?
Homocysteine (HC) is normally changed into other amino acids for use by the body, which makes it completely safe. This whole process requires a variety of nutrients, with the most important being Folate (also known as Folic Acid) Vitamin B6, B3 & B12, magnesium and zinc.
If your homocysteine level is too high, you may not have enough B vitamins including B12 and Choline, Folate, Magnesium or Zinc to help this process. Or you may not have enough of the chemicals (enzymes) made from these nutrients to process homocysteine.
For example, HC is removed from the blood steam by converting it to cysteine a harmless amino acid; this process requires Vitamin B6 a vitamin freely available in all fresh fruit and vegetables. You are most likely to have high HC levels if your intake of fresh fruit and vegetables is too low. By following The Natural Way 5 steps you are likely to take in more than enough of these nutrients, so there is no need to supplement. However some people have faulty digestive systems and this could interfere with B12 absorption, in this instance a supplement may be needed, but it is best to correct the digestive malfunction with lifestyle changes
You may be taking in too much Methionine an essential amino acid found in high levels in animal flesh, so a high animal protein diet would contribute to a high HC level.
Interestingly, animal protein is believed to be a source of B12, yet the more Methionine you take in from animal products the more B12 you will need to convert homocysteine to a safe form. This is why vegetarians can possibly attain excellent health as their need for B12 is less due to the naturally lower intake of Methionine.
Vegetarians and meat eaters that eat a processed diet, drink tea and coffee and don’t eat a diet high in fresh fruit and vegetables are more likely to suffer from low B12 and high Homocysteine levels. Heavy metals such as mercury, lead etc also appear to contribute to low B12 levels.
Most people with a high homocysteine level don’t get enough folate (also called folic acid), vitamin B6 or vitamin B12 in their diet. Replacing these vitamins with natural whole foods helps return the homocysteine level to normal. The best sources of most of these nutrients are fresh fruit and vegetables, particularly in a raw form with dark green leafy vegetables topping the list as the most nutritious. Not many plants contain B12 but sprouted grains do, particularly sprouted barley leaves. Sterilising foods by cooking or using antiseptic products also destroys B12, so eat raw and wash with water or non sterilising cleaning material.
Barley Life contains B3, B6, B12, Folate (folic acid), magnesium and zinc plus many other nutrients.
Other possible causes of a high homocysteine level include low levels of thyroid hormone (this indicates a hormonal or endocrine problem and can specifically indicate a gluten intolerance), kidney disease, psoriasis, some medicines, or inherited deficiencies in the enzymes used to process homocysteine in the body. Further cause can be coffee intake (even decaffeinated) and tea including green tea. This time it is not the caffeine but a substance called chlorogenic acid that can raise your homocysteine levels.
Alcohol, Animal fats including those found in dairy products, heated and processed fats such as margarine can all contribute to higher HC levels. Then stress, smoking and too little oestrogen and many medicines such as those used for Parkinson’s diseases, diabetes, corticosteroids (anti-inflammatories), Methotrexate (used in arthritis), anticonvulsives and some diabetic medication especially.
How is the homocysteine level measured, and what do the results mean?
Homocysteine is measured using a simple blood test. It can be measured at any time of day. It is not necessary to prepare in any special way for the blood test (such as fasting). Most hospital labs can measure homocysteine, or a blood sample can be sent out to a special lab.
A healthy homocysteine level is less than 12 µmol per Litre. A level greater than 12 µmol per L is considered high. If your homocysteine level is 12 to 15 µmol per L and you have blockages in any blood vessel, you need to lower your homocysteine to less than 12 µmol per L. If you have no other major risk factors for cardiovascular disease and you do not have atherosclerosis, it may be okay for you to have a modestly high level of homocysteine (12 to 15 µmol per L). Many other writers now consider anything over 6 to be too high.
How can I lower a high homocysteine level?
Eating more fruits and vegetables (especially leafy green vegetables) can help lower your homocysteine level by increasing how much folate you get in your diet. Good sources of folate include all fresh fruit and vegetables especially dark green leafy veg, lentils, chickpeas, asparagus, oranges, avocado, beetroot, spinach, lettuce, fresh herbs, papaya and most beans. Folate is sometimes called “folic acid.” Generally folic acid is the supplement form and folate is what is found naturally in plants. Cooking destroys folate so it is best eaten raw. Make sure that your intestines are healthy by avoiding antibiotic foods such as onion or garlic or medication, or take a regular bacteria replacement if you do eat these food such as acidophilus and bifida. The best types contain fructo-oliogosaccarides or FOS, which is the food the bacteria need to multiply. These bacteria encourage the manufacture of B12 in the intestines.
Food combining (see chapter 3 of The Natural Way and also Healthy Kids and Perfect Weight encourages better absorption of nutrients and complete protein digestion particularly is needed to help absorb B12 as B12 is bonded to protein when it comes into the body and needs to be released by efficient protein digestion.
The amount needed daily of the nutrients mentioned above are listed below with their sources.
Vitamin B6 is involved in over forty enzyme reactions as a coenzyme. It is important for brain and nerve function, the formation of blood, and muscle operation. It affects the growth of hair and is necessary for bodily growth.
Pre-menstrual tension frequently responds where there is an associated zinc deficiency. It may be helpful in sickness due to deep X-ray treatment.
Morning sickness in pregnancy may also be helped. Sufficient Pyridoxine helps reduce the frequency of toxaemia in pregnancy. In animals, hardening of the
arteries (atheroma) is produced by putting them on a pyridoxine-free diet. It may also help in treating schizophrenia. Is also essential for the conversion
of homocysteine (an amino acid known to damage arteries) and promote heart disease into cystiene a harmless amino acid.
It is found in grains and their products but are destroyed when cooking so sprouted leaves are the best source, legumes, nuts, seeds and most fruit and vegetables. In fact, it is very widely distributed, but it is almost entirely lost in milling or processing and during heating.
This is proportional to weight. With both adult men and adult women it is about 2 mg per day. It may go up as high as 10 mg in pregnant and lactating women. World-wide studies show that people with hardening of the arteries have low levels of pyridoxine. The Pill increases the need for it.
All B vitamins are destroyed by refined sugar and carbohydrates so a diet high in refined and processed carbohydrates would also increase your HC levels.
Vitamin B2 – Riboflavin
Here is another vital amine. One carbon ring is attached to two other rings containing two nitrogen atoms. Attached to one nitrogen atom in the middle ring is a short CH side chain. It is water-soluble and not stored in the body, being rapidly excreted if taken in excess particularly in supplement form.
This will turn the urine bright yellow. Flavins tend to be yellow and sometimes fluorescent.
This vitamin takes part in the formation of a lot of enzymes. It is employed in the use of energy by the body. It is essential for growth, tissue maintenance,
and preservation of the function of the skin, particularly at the junctions of mucous membrane with the outer skin. It is necessary for the formation of new
Dietary sources are green, leafy vegetables, tomatoes, potatoes, apricots, sprouting seeds, grains, wheat-germ.
The requirement varies from about 0.5 mg a day for babies, and up to 2 mg in pregnant and lactating women, the average for adults being
Vitamin B12 – Hydroxocobalamine
This is a unique vitamin, for it is required in very small amounts and has a single atom of cobalt at its centre. It is very much a vital amine, as there are no fewer than four nitrogen atoms surrounding the central cobalt atom.
The main function of B12 is to act as a coenzyme in combination with folic acid to allow the maturing and release of red cells from the marrow into the circulating blood. It protects the myelin sheaths of nerves from damage.
It is necessary for growth, the production of sperm, and to maintain the mucous membranes, especially of the mouth. It is also needed for the process of converting homocysteine to a safe form.
Vitamin B12 is manufactured by animals, bacteria, and yeast. Food that is of plant origin and is free from bacteria and yeast contains no B12.
Absorption of B12 in the human requires the aid of the “intrinsic” factor, a mucoprotein secreted by special Parietal cells in the stomach. Deficiencies are supposed to occur in people who eat absolutely no animal products (vegans), but most people can adapt to this situation by absorbing the vitamin from that
which is produced by bacteria in the intestine.
From 0.6-1.5 ug is sufficient for adults. Children need double the latter figure; lactating and pregnant women need 5-8 ug. The Pill and illness also increase the requirements.
Deficiency Symptoms (read here for a link to some research about B12 deficiency)
The main disease is severely large-celled anaemia with a sore, shiny tongue, and tingling and numbness of the hands and feet.
Degeneration of the spinal cord may produce weakness and lack of co-ordination of the legs and arms. Fatigue and shortage of breath are usually the first symptoms, but sometimes the spinal cord symptoms occur alone. Vitamin B12 deficiency may mimic schizophrenia.
The Folic Acid Group
Folic acid is the commonest of a number of similar compounds. It is a true and vital amine and is so named because it was first found in spinach foliage. It is classed in the B group of vitamins but for some reason has not been given a number. It is water-soluble and a little is stored in the body. It is very sensitive to heat and 50-95 per cent is destroyed in cooking – yet another reason to eat a mainly raw diet.
Folic acid plays an important part in cell division, particularly in the formation of red blood cells, the genes (heredity factors), and the formation of some amino acids.
It is found in dark-green, leafy vegetables, whole grains, nuts, oranges, turnips, potatoes, and soy-beans. Very few fruits do not contain it.
The requirements are small: for adults about 50 g, half of this in a child, and up to 500g a day in pregnancy and lactation. Absorption may be blocked by the Pill. Old people do not absorb it well mainly because their diet contains very little raw food.
The chief one is a large celled-anaemia, occurring mainly in pregnancy, but also in old age. Mental symptoms, irritability, depression, insomnia, fatigue, and poor memory are common, as is slow growth in children. There may be an increased susceptibility to infection. In pregnant women, spina bifida may occur in their offspring.
Signs of Excess
No such symptoms are reported. Because its use can mask the central nervous system damage of vitamin B12 deficiency, folic acid should not be used indiscriminately as a supplement; rather eat more fruit and vegetables.
Inositol and Choline
These two, little understood substances, are considered to be part of the vitamin B group. They are connected with nerve function and fat deposition in the liver and arteries.
Wheat-germ, green, leafy vegetables, brown rice, nuts, raisins, melons, beetroot and cabbages are good sources. Wherever you find the other B vitamins, you usually find these two as well. Choline is now known to help lower Homocysteine levels by a process whereby it is converted into TMG (Trimethyl glycine) when it loses a methyl group, this then converts Homocysteine into SAMe or s-adenosyl Methionine a derivative of Methionine and essential amino acid.
Magnesium takes part in most chemical reactions in the body, as it is incorporated in many enzymes. It helps in energy production and transfer, in the formation of proteins and fats, and in the use of calcium, potassium, and sodium.
Acid soils tend to be deficient in magnesium and the now-normal heavy use of nitrogen to stimulate quick and plentiful growth of plants locks the magnesium up in the soil so that the deficiency of the latter is common. The refining of food, the use of water softeners, boiling of vegetables that dissolves it in the water, and the use of preservatives in the preparation of frozen foods, further reduce the magnesium levels of the plants that are the source of this mineral. Only people who eat a lot of raw vegetable food get enough magnesium nowadays. Mild signs of deficiency are fatigue, irritability, poor memory, and depression.
Calcium helps muscles to contract, while magnesium helps them to relax. It is the natural calcium antagonist and, when delivered inside cells, it combines with a transporter of mineral ions such as orotic acid, which does not release its magnesium ion until it reaches the mitochondria, so then it can lower the blood pressure, reduce angina, and the irritability of heart muscles, and hence the tendency to bouts of irregular beating.
Alcohol, high protein, high fat, and high refined CHO (e.g. sugar and flour) intakes, diabetes, kidney deficiencies, stress, pregnancy, lactation, and growth all increase magnesium requirements.
It is hard to achieve an excessive intake of magnesium, as magnesium salts tend to be laxative, but this can be toxic. Requirements vary from about 65 mg in babies to 450 mg per day in pregnant and lactating women; 300-350 mg is average for adult.
What about supplementation?
Considering that only 4-10% is available from most supplements it is an expensive and sometimes dangerous route to go. Folic acid can for example mask a serious B12 deficiency. It would be better to obtain extra nutrients from juicing fresh fruit and vegetables. Just a few glasses of fresh orange juice would supply you with most of the nutrients necessary to control HC levels. It is a good idea to drink juice from the 3 colour groups as they are all excellent sources of the necessary nutrients. For this reason I drink organic raw, barley juice and carrot and beet juice daily. I find it most convenient to use Aim dried organic juices, namely Barleylife, Just Carrots and Redibeets; it is the most convenient way to take them. Alternatively grow your own organically and juice them daily.
Many companies are promoting supplementation for this problem and many of the nutrients are in fact made by the body. Taking supplements such as SAMe (s-adenosyl Methionine), TMG (tri-methyl glycine) and DMG (Di-methyl glycine) can interfere with the natural pathways in the body. No long term research on humans has been done so there is no way of knowing what this could do to the body in the long term. All three of these substances are made from Choline, which is found in our food.
The Vitamin Robbers by Richard Passwater (1983) Keats Publishing
Your Personal Vitamin Profile by Dr Micheal Colgan (1982) Blong & Briggs
Feel Better, Live Longer by Dr Willem Serfontain (2003) Tafelberg
The H Factor by Dr James Braly and P. Holford (2003) Piatkus
American Heart Association web site and Google search engine “Homocysteine”
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