Homocysteine is one of many amino acid made by the body and is something we get from eating meat. Normally, amino acids are those that help make muscle and proteins in the body. It has been found that high levels of homocysteine in the body are associated with hardening and narrowing of the arteries, also known as atherosclerosis. Things like heart disease, blood clots, strokes and perhaps Alzheimer’s disease are related to atherosclerosis and elevated homocysteine levels. Some doctors believe that one can test for elevated homocysteine levels and can determine who is at risk for heart disease and who isn’t.
Homocysteine was first suspected as a risk for heart disease in 1969, when a doctor discovered that those born with genetic homocysteinuria had advanced atherosclerosis at a young age. It was further confirmed in the 1990s.
Having a high homocysteine level doesn’t have any obvious symptoms unless you get narrowing of the arteries. Then you get symptoms of a stroke or heart attack. You can also have lower extremity circulation problems. Blood clots more readily with homocysteinuria. The blood clots inside the artery are particularly dangerous because they can diminish blood supply to important areas, such as the heart and the brain. Strokes and heart attacks can result. Another symptom is that of a deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolus. These are spontaneous venous clots that can be deadly if they travel to the lungs.
When looking at homocysteine levels, a normal level is considered to be between 5 and 15 micromoles per liter. Moderately elevated levels are from 15-30 micromoles per liter and intermediate levels are from 30-100 micromoles per liter. Greater than 100 micromoles per liter is considered a severely high level. Homocysteine can be gotten rid of with folic acid, which transforms it to methionine and cysteine. Vitamin B12 and vitamin B6 help as well. If you don’t have enough of these vitamins in your system, homocysteine levels can rise dramatically and risk your life.
There can be genetic or moderate levels of homocysteine that are unrelated to genetics. The genetic condition is known as homocysteinuria and affects a small proportion of the population. In the genetic form of the disease, there is osteoporosis, developmental delay, vision problems, blood clots and early evidence of atherosclerosis. There are milder forms of homocysteinuria that don’t have as many symptoms.
Mild forms of homocysteinuria can be treated with folate vitamin supplements and perhaps supplements of vitamin B6 and vitamin B12. There is, however, no proof that lowering homocysteine levels actually reduces the risk of atherosclerotic heart disease.