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Homocysteine and cholesterol

While most people have an idea that cholesterol is an undesirable fat which is somehow linked to heart disease few people have heard of Homocysteine, an amino acid (amino acids are the building blocks which make up proteins). The Times Newspaper, 17-7-1997, reported that Homocysteine is a more important risk factor than raised cholesterol for heart attack, stroke or peripheral artery obstruction. They reported high levels may be genetic or due to a diet low in Folic acid, vitamin B12 or B6. They go on to say that although a rich persons diet may be higher in fats it is also higher in folic acid, and this may explain why the poor have a higher rate of heart disease than rich people. They quote the British Medical Journal as recommending Folic acid be added to wheat flour, a measure already taken in the USA.

Homocysteine was discovered by Dr Kilmer Mc Kully about 1970. He is a pathologist in a large hospital where his job includes finding out the cause of death of patients. Back in the 1970’s he wondered how children could die of heart disease. Eventually he found high levels of Homocysteine in these children explaining the abnormality. He then wondered, being as the children developed what we normally think of as an older persons disease, whether some older people actually had raised Homocysteine developing later in life. He found this to be the case. As homocysteine rises so do cardiovascular related problems.

What is Homocysteine?

Homocysteine is an intermediary amino acid, let me explain. Suppose you want to travel from London to Brighton but always end up half way in Crawley – you did not get where you wanted to. In the body Homocysteine has no useful functions other than it is a necessary intermediary between Cysteine and Methionine; which have important functions. In some cases of nutritional or genetic deficiency the body is unable to convert cysteine to methionine, getting stuck at Homocysteine which has inflammatory effects particularly in the artery wall. Inflammation of the artery wall encourages plaque formation (plaques contain cholesterol), called arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.

Signs of arteriosclerosis include angina, breathlessness on mild exertion and cramping pains in the calf muscles after mild exercise, which goes away quickly on resting. Arteriosclerosis increases the likelihood of stroke or heart attack by making more clots. Dementia is also linked to high Homocysteine levels. The conversion of Homocysteine into cysteine or methionine relies on enzyme pathways which are genetically determined- you are born with the tendency. This explains why heart and circulatory problems run in families. Research by Dr Bruce Ames published in 2001 in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition adds that the genetic tendency may in theory be overcome by taking extra vitamins and minerals. Genes may only account for a part of our health with lifestyle also being important. It’s not what you’ve got it’s what you do with it that counts more. Studies of identical twins supports this statement.

The key vitamins and minerals involved and some selected sources

Magnesium – found in Soya, Nuts, organic blackstrap molasses, wholemeal* grains and rice.

B6 –found in wholemeal* grains, Oats, Soya. Tuna, Turkey, Beef, Chicken, Salmon, Sweet potato, Potato, Sunflower seeds, Spinach, Banana

Folic acid –found in Soya, wholemeal* grains and cereals, Seeds, Nuts, dark green vegetables, Peas and legumes, Beets, Asparagus, Broccoli, Citrus fruits, Avocado, Caulflower, Corn

B12 – found in liver, meat, eggs, cheese, yoghurt, yeast extract, fortified cereals, many soya products, (miso and tempeh are not true sources).

Choline, and its derivatives DMG, TMG also found in liver, egg, wholemeal* foods and green vegetables.

Iodine, found in all fish, iodised sea salt and seaweeds. UK intake of Iodine is usually below the RDA while Japanese people who eat seaweed daily may have a hundred times our RDA in their daily diet. Buy a bag of seagreens in a health food store and start putting a few teaspoons in your soups or stews, think of it like mixed herbs.

Supplements: I recommend the use of specific vitamin and mineral formulas but need to test these in a consultation to know which ones work best for a given individual. In the absence of this test you might like to find the best multi formula you can containing all the listed supplements in this essay. Always check with your GP or health advisor before adding supplements to your diet in case of interactions with prescribed drugs. Also read my essay “Design your own nutrional program” in this articles section of the web-site. For proven high homocysteine levels there are specialist formulas such as TMG (also called betaine). Kilmer McKully says normal blood levels should be under 6.

But what about cholesterol?

Cholesterol is the building block used to make most hormones. It is also use structurally in all the cells of the body.

To lower cholesterol naturally:

  1. Look at www.ornish.com the website of Dean Ornish MD professor of medicine at Berkely USA. He has shown that cardiovascular disease is reversible with adequate dietary and lifestyle change. www.nutritionfacts.org is also a good place to start. Both suggest that we avoid animal products as they are the only dietary source of cholesterol.
  2. There are supplements available that naturally lower cholesterol and also ones that compensate for the side effects of medications used to lower cholesterol, if you choose to take them. Please ask your Naturopath or look at the web sites above for more information.

Your Own research

Try the www.lef.org for the latest information. Also read Dean Ornish MD’ s  book ‘Reversing Heart disease without drugs or surgery’

NB Disclaimer: No one should rely on this or any other essay to make dietary changes without checking with their doctor or health advisor. We are all individuals and it is therefore it is best if  everyone consults with a nutritional specialist, or naturopath to ascertain their own special needs. We are not responsible for persons we have not seen personally or if you choose to make changes without checking with your doctor or advisor.