You have probably heard of amino acids, the building blocks of protein. There are 20 amino acids, 9 of which are essential and obtained from the food we eat. The remaining 11 are nonessential and manufactured by our bodies. Homocysteine is a nonessential amino acid and is often tested for during blood draws.
WHY IS KNOWING MY HOMOCYSTEINE LEVEL IMPORTANT?
When our bodies are functioning properly, our homocysteine levels are kept in check. However, if a person isn’t breaking down homocysteine properly, it will build up in our bodies and can cause chronic inflammation. Ongoing, high homocysteine levels is linked to many health conditions including heart attacks, stroke, depression, and is a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of cognitive decline. In functional medicine, a high homocysteine level is anything over 6 micromoles/liter. Conventional lab tests consider anything over 15 as being high.
WHAT CAUSES HIGH HOMOCYSTEINE LEVELS?
–MTHFR GENETIC MUTATION:
Having high homocysteine levels can be caused by a genetic mutation, which is seen in the MTHFR enzyme. This enzyme is needed to break down homocysteine into another amino acid, called methionine. It also converts folate into a useable form. If a person has an MTHFR mutation, her homocysteine can be elevated and she may well have deficiencies in a variety of B vitamins (which are also needed to break down homocysteine). The B vitamins most needed to balance homocysteine are B6, B12, and folate (B9).
It is believed that 30% to 50% of all people carry the MTHFR mutation. Those with this mutation benefit from taking B vitamins that are easily converted into a useable form (their “active” form).
An unhealthy lifestyle is another common way to develop high homocysteine levels. Eating a diet that is low in B vitamins and high in processed, inflammatory foods will lead to ever-rising homocysteine levels.
Other factors that contribute to high homocysteine levels are:
Pregnancy and breast-feeding
Certain medications: antibiotics, birth control pills, antacids, NSAID’s, antidepressants, and those for high cholesterol
HOW CAN I LOWER MY HIGH HOMOCYSTEINE?
A simple blood test can determine if you have the MTHFR mutation. If so, your practitioner may want you to take “active” B Complex supplements. The active form of folate is readily used by your body, essentially bypassing the MTHFR enzyme.
Eat your B vitamins! B vitamins are found in salmon, beef, chicken, leafy greens such as spinach and collard greens, eggs, shellfish, legumes, beets, asparagus, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, avocado, walnuts, and flaxseeds.
Avoid folic acid in foods and supplements. Folic acid is the synthetic version of folate (B9) and is found in lower quality B9 supplements, as well as in fortified foods such as processed breads, pasta, and orange juice.
Exercise regularly! Try new forms such as bicycling, yoga, martial arts, running, dancing, or swimming.
Get enough sleep and manage your stress! Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night and spend time calming your thoughts, journaling, meditating, and spending time outdoors.