Can You Reduce Your Homocysteine Levels?

Can You Reduce Your Homocysteine Levels?

Scientifically reviewed by: Michael A. Smith, MD

Are you concerned about high homocysteine levels? Serious diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s to stroke have been connected to excessive homocysteine. Fortunately, changing your approach to nutrition can help reverse the course on this condition.

What is homocysteine?

Woman preparing cheese on a cutting board

Homocysteine is a substance in the blood that is made from the essential amino acid methionine. Methionine is present in many of the foods we consume—particularly high-protein foods such as red meat and dairy products.

While a certain amount of methionine is part of a healthy diet, too much methionine—or, too little of certain B vitamins—can result in high levels of homocysteine (hyperhomocysteinemia) in the blood.

Why it's unhealthy to have high homocysteine levels

High homocysteine levels in the blood have been associated with an increased risk of numerous diseases and conditions. Homocysteine is bad for the heart because it can damage the lining of the blood vessels that nourish this vital organ. High homocysteine levels have been associated with:

  • Coronary artery disease and stroke
  • Heart failure
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Blood clots
  • Age-related macular degeneration
  • Hearing loss

The good news? There are ways to normalize homocysteine levels if they are elevated.

What causes high homocysteine?

Man biting into grilled ribs

Your diet might be to blame for elevated homocysteine levels. Red meat and dairy products contain a relatively high amount of the amino acid methionine, which can convert to homocysteine.

In addition, diets that contain a lot of processed foods may lack optimal levels of B vitamins, which can increase the risk of having higher than normal homocysteine levels.

While this is bad news for avid red meat and junk food lovers, the good news is that simple diet changes can make a big difference. Focusing less on high-methionine foods while still getting enough protein from other sources is a healthier approach.

Nutrients that support healthy homocysteine levels

In addition to reducing your intake of dairy, red meat and processed foods, you can help prevent high homocysteine levels by making sure you get enough of the following nutrients:

Person washing fresh greens in the sink
  • TMG and choline—Trimethylglycine (TMG) is a compound often referred to as betaine, or glycine betaine. An article published in the Journal of Nutrition reported a study that involved four groups of healthy men and women who were given 1.5 grams, 3 grams or 6 grams TMG, or a placebo daily for 6 weeks. Fasting plasma homocysteine levels among those who received TMG were a respective 12%, 15% and 20% lower at the end of the treatment period in comparison with levels measured in the placebo group. “A betaine-rich diet might therefore lower cardiovascular disease risk,” authors Margreet R. Olthof and colleagues concluded. Sugar beets, quinoa, wheat bran and spinach are all good sources of TMG (and other nutrients). Additionally, TMG can be formed by the metabolism of choline.
  • Vitamin B complex—Folate, vitamin B12 (cobalamin), vitamin B2 (riboflavin) and vitamin B6 all help promote healthy homocysteine levels. B complex vitamins are present in whole grains, poultry, fish, legumes, brewer’s yeast and other foods. Intake of a vitamin B complex also an option, but just keep in mind that because B vitamins are water soluble and are not stored in the body, it is important to consume them on a daily basis.
  • Amino acids—N-acetylcysteine (NAC, a form of the amino acid cysteine) and the sulfur-containing amino acid taurine have been associated with a reduction in homocysteine levels when given in human trials.

Are there symptoms of high homocysteine levels?

High homocysteine levels in the blood are known as hyperhomocysteinemia—and there aren’t any specific symptoms to look for to know if you have this condition. However, testing your levels regularly is important, because diseases that are associated with high homocysteine levels can be severe or even life-threatening.

How to know if you have high homocysteine levels

Woman finishing a blood draw with her doctor

Regular blood testing, including testing for homocysteine, is a tried-and-true way to tell whether your levels are elevated. Below is a chart that can help determine whether your homocysteine test result is considered normal.

Standard homocysteine levels chart

Total homocysteine level Interpretation
5–14 micromoles per liter (µmol/L) Normal
15–30 µmol/L Mildly elevated
30–100 µmol/L Intermediately elevated
100 µmol/L or higher Seriously elevated

The lower end of the normal range is ideal. Less than 7-8 µmol/L could be considered a healthy target to help protect against disease risk.

Take a look at this chart, compiled from data published in the New England Journal of Medicine:

Homocysteine
Blood Level
Risk of Dying
(3.9-5.3 years)
Less than 9 µmol/L 3.8%
Between 9 and 15 8.6%
Greater than 15 24.7%

It shows that, among cardiovascular disease patients, the risk of dying during a 3.9 to 5.3-year period more than doubles when homocysteine rises above 9 µmol/L

If you find that your homocysteine is higher than an optimal level, change your nutritional strategy by reducing your intake of foods that promote high homocysteine levels, while increasing your intake of TMG, B vitamins, NAC and taurine. Then, recheck with another blood test. Once your homocysteine levels have improved, it is a good idea to have a homocysteine test at least yearly.

Consuming a diet that contains healthy sources of protein—and getting enough vitamin B complex and TMG—will help you maintain optimal homocysteine levels and support overall good health.

 

References

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