Probably because cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, prioritizing heart health is on every health professional’s agenda. A majority of cardiovascular supportive efforts are aimed at lowering fat levels in the blood. However, a growing number of practitioners are acknowledging homocysteine level reduction as another important part of maintaining optimal heart health.
Lifestyle modifications consistently prove themselves to be the most valuable defense against heart disease, but they are not always enough. As the pharmaceutical and supplement industries strive to provide the best solutions for maintaining optimal heart health, they are always intended to complement – not substitute for – a heart healthy lifestyle. The four most lauded lifestyle practices that favor a healthy heart include:
- Diet – A low-fat, high-fiber diet helps minimize blood lipids and cardiovascular inflammation. In general, this means increasing quantities of fruit, vegetables and fiber, while limiting sugar, saturated fat, salt and red meat.
- Exercise – Inactivity breeds illness. Research has shown that getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity at least 5 days a week helps lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol. For those starting out on their heart health quest, even 10 minutes of exercise per day works the cardiovascular system and offers health benefits.
- Stress Reduction – High stress levels are linked to atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease. Thus, stress reduction techniques (like yoga, meditation, relaxation, massage, singing and laughing) are believed to play a large role in heart health.
- Smoking Cessation – The American Heart Association claims that cigarette smoking is the most important preventable cause of premature death in the United States. In fact, quitting smoking reduces the risk of repeat heart attacks and death from heart disease by at least 50 percent.
Aside from these lifestyle modifications, many drugs and herbal supplements benefiting the heart aim to lower high cholesterol – lipids in the blood that are likely to cause atherosclerosis (fatty deposits in blood vessels). Balanced cholesterol levels are a vital part of any heart health plan; however, balanced homocysteine levels represent another valid approach for cardiovascular wellness.
Even though the American Heart Association has not yet called hyperhomocysteinemia (high homocysteine level in the blood) a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, there is sufficient evidence suggesting that homocysteine may promote atherosclerosis by damaging the inner lining of arteries and promoting blood clots.
Homocysteine is an amino acid in the blood, usually a byproduct of meat consumption. Too much homocysteine is related to a higher risk of coronary heart disease, stroke and peripheral vascular disease (fatty deposits in peripheral arteries). Strongly influenced by diet and genetics, homocysteine is broken down in the body by folic acid and other B vitamins. Several studies found that higher blood levels of B vitamins are related, at least in part, to lower concentrations of homocysteine. Other evidence shows that low blood levels of folic acid are linked with a higher risk of fatal coronary heart disease and stroke.
There are many studies underway to determine whether there may be a benefit to treating high levels of homocysteine in patients with known heart disease or blood clots. While there is no direct proof that supplementing with folic acid and B vitamins prevents heart attacks and strokes, several population and observational studies have found a clear link.
Thus, aiding the breakdown of homocysteine to improve cardiovascular health remains known largely to academics and educated healthcare providers. That is why many of them suggest supplements containing two functions: the ability to reduce cholesterol and homocysteine levels. Of course, when it comes to cardiovascular health, supplementation is always secondary to the four lifestyle practices listed above: diet, exercise, stress reduction and smoking cessation. For people interested in optimal cardiovascular health, lowering homocysteine levels represents a valid complement to lowering high cholesterol and living a heart-healthy lifestyle.