Your body manufactures amino acids to build protein. Sometimes, though, your body can produce too much of a good thing. Studies suggest that high levels of the amino acid known as homocysteine (ho-mo-sist-een) can damage the heart’s arteries and lead to cardiac disease and blood clots that increase your risk of stroke and peripheral vascular disease.
A simple blood test can tell you whether your homocysteine levels are helping you or potentially harming you. Genetic factors and diet strongly influence homocysteine. Too much homocysteine can also be a result of thyroid problems, kidney disease, psoriasis, Alzheimer’s disease or some medications.
Folic acid and vitamins B6 and B12 seem to have the most beneficial effect on homocysteine levels—these substances help convert homocysteine into other amino acids so it doesn’t accumulate in the blood. However, more studies are needed before a direct link can be made between low homocysteine levels and a lower risk of heart disease and stroke. The American Heart Association (AHA) doesn’t yet consider high homocysteine a major cardiovascular disease risk factor. That said, the AHA does recommend that people who have high risk factors for heart disease increase their intake of folic acid and vitamins B6 and B12 in their diet.
Boost your intake of folic acid by eating more beans, lentils, oranges and leafy, green vegetables. Choose folic acid-enriched cereal, bread, rice and pasta. Good sources of vitamin B6 are proteins like chicken, pork and beef and foods like bananas, potatoes and chickpeas. Low-fat milk and cheeses, eggs, liver and beef are all good sources of vitamin B12.
If improving your diet doesn’t reduce your homocysteine levels, your healthcare provider may recommend you take folic acid and B vitamin supplements and check your level periodically.