by Dr. Will Cole
In my functional medicine practice, I use lab testing to help my patients discover the mechanisms behind their chronic symptoms and conditions, and one of the labs that I consider critical for discovering susceptibility to many chronic health problems is homocysteine.
Homocysteine is an amino acid produced in the body. Everyone has it, but when homocysteine levels get too high, it has been linked to autoimmune conditions, as well as heart damage and heart attacks, diabetes, and many other health issues. Many lifestyles factors can influence your homocysteine levels, causing it to rise too high, including stress, poor diet, toxin exposure, and medications. Homocysteine can also increase with estrogen deficiency.
Your body has built-in systems to keep homocysteine levels in check – namely methylation. However, to have healthy methylation pathways, your body needs beneficial methyl donors – B vitamins in particular – from the foods you eat, which convert homocysteine to SAMe and glutathione. For this reason, high homocysteine levels can also be a consequence of poor absorption of B vitamins.
SAMe increases the availability of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, and protects your nerves. Glutathione is your body’s strongest antioxidant. Both are essential for putting autoimmune reactions into remission. When your methyl donors are lacking, homocysteine accumulates in the body and further increases with estrogen deficiency, as well as with some long-term medications given to autoimmune patients.
Strict vegetarians and vegans can also be prone to methylation impairments due to a potential deficiency of vitamin B12. These are just some of the factors that can raise homocysteine.
Homocysteine and Autoimmunity
Healthy methylation pathways and balanced homocysteine levels protect your DNA. Methylation helps keep good genes turned on and bad genes turned off, but when methylation is impaired, it can trigger an autoimmune response.
Homocysteine and Brain Function
Homocysteine levels above 7 UMOL/L have been shown to damage the protective blood-brain barrier (leaky brain syndrome), and are linked to neurologically-based autoimmune spectrum diseases like multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s.
More than 5.4 million people in the US have Alzheimer’s disease, and by the year 2050, it’s estimated that up to 16 million Americans will have it. You can see why reversing and preventing autoimmune decline is essential for protecting the brain, neurotransmitter function, and myelin, which is the sheath protecting nerve fibers. This depends on healthy methylation pathways.
Homocysteine and Heart Function
High homocysteine levels are linked with cardiovascular damage. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women, so everyone should be concerned about homocysteine for this reason, if for no other. Many autoimmune conditions, such as lupus and autoimmune thyroid disease (Hashimoto’s or Graves), also increase the risk for heart attack and stroke, as all these systems and processes are linked.
What to do about high homocysteine
If you have high homocysteine levels, there are a couple of things you can do to lessen your health risks and restore homocysteine to normal levels. One thing I suggest is running another lab, to get more information. This is the MTHFR genetic mutation test, which can shed light on specific genetic reasons why your homocysteine level might be higher than normal.
The more gene polymorphisms you have, the more methylation impairments you’re likely to experience, which can lead to higher homocysteine levels. This genetic predisposition has been associated in many cases with autoimmunity, such as Hashimoto’s. Knowing your risk factors is the first step to optimizing your health and targeting your therapies.
In addition to homocysteine and MTHFR mutation tests, there are several other labs myself and other functional medicine doctors will probably recommend for optimal DNA health. So a visit to a functional medicine practitioner can help you tease out the details and find solutions. One thing you can do on your own right now, however, if you have high homocysteine levels or an autoimmune condition, is to optimize your B vitamin levels, to support methylation.
The type of B vitamins you take is important. Be sure to go for the activated forms of folate, B6, and B12:
- L-5-MTHF Folate: Methylfolate
- B6: Pyridoxyl-5-Phosphate (P5P)
- B12: Methylcobalamine
Implementing a variety of natural tools to promote immune balance is another way to put autoimmune symptoms into remission.
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