Before we get to the new role of vitamin B12 and its new place above folate, we must rehash the health implications of homocysteine. Why? Because this is what we need to keep in mind when talking about B12 and the health of your heart.
Homocysteine is a sulfur-containing amino acid. High blood levels greatly increase the risk of coronary artery
disease, stroke and blood clots in people who are otherwise perfectly healthy.
When homocysteine levels are high, it causes toxic damage to the lining of your arteries, it interferes with blood clotting, and it “oxidizes” LDL cholesterol — the same way that dreaded free radicals do.
One scary thing about high homocysteine levels is that your blood pressure readings could be fine and your cholesterol count perfectly healthy, but this hidden threat could still be lurking.
The problem is generally exacerbated if you have low intake of B vitamins, three of which are proven to reduce levels of this dangerous amino acid. One is folate, one is vitamin B12, and the other is vitamin B6. You should get a doctor to screen your levels if you have a family history of heart problems or feel you’re at risk for any other reason.
For a long time researchers have acknowledged that folate was the ultimate vitamin that protected your heart from high homocysteine levels. And, frankly, they were correct.
This critical vitamin, also known as vitamin B9, works to stifle the negative effects of homocysteine.
Folic acid breaks down and reassembles several amino acids; included in this process is the transformation of
homocysteine into methionine, which the body can use safely. Not enough folic acid means increased levels of
homocysteine in your blood.
The evidence is so strong that the government and the food industry have taken folate intake seriously. It is regularly fortified into all kinds of food we eat, so that we are ensured our proper daily value. For example, for the past seven years, the U.S. government has mandated that all whole grain products be fortified with folate. On a scale of one to 10, folate scores a 10 for attention.
And vitamin B12 scores a one. But I believe this other B-vitamin should not be ignored and relegated to the back. In the study that prompted my article, McMaster University researchers wrote, “Now that folic acid fortification is widespread in North America, vitamin B12 has become an important determinant of homocysteine levels.”
There is no question that plaque in the arteries — to which high homocysteine levels are linked — can result from too little folate or too little vitamin B12. The Canadian research team wanted to see if low blood levels of B12 had anything to do with the continuing high homocysteine levels in patients who had vascular disease — despite the folic acid fortification of common foods. Might B12 be the reason homocysteine is sticking around?
To answer the question, the researchers examined about 420 people aged 37 to 90 — the majority of whom were taking medication to control high blood pressure, and/or drugs to lower cholesterol. Here’s the main finding: 73 people were found to have vitamin B12 deficiency — that means lower than the minimum amount required by the body. So, of the 420 people, that equals 17%. For anyone who had vitamin B12 levels below average, there was more plaque built up in his/her cardiovascular system.
This means two things: vitamin B12 deficiency is “surprisingly common” among patients who have vascular
disease; and low B12 levels are a “major determinant” of high homocysteine levels and higher levels of plaque. This is firm proof that, even though folate is being supplemented on a wide scale, we can’t assume that homocysteine levels are no longer a problem. We can’t forget about vitamin B12!
You can be deficient for a number of reasons. One is eating a strict vegetarian/vegan diet. That’s because dairy, eggs and lean meat are the only significant sources of B12. You won’t become deficient overnight; sometimes this process takes a year to unravel. Another cause for deficiency is absorption problems.
What do I mean by that? A quick explanation: vitamin B12 differs from other nutrients in that, before the cells in your intestines can absorb it, the vitamin needs to combine with a protein (the “intrinsic factor”) in your digestive juices. Some people — older adults and those on low-protein diets — don’t make enough intrinsic actor to facilitate the absorption of this vitamin.
Here’s what a deficiency might feel like: you’re very tired most of the time. Even people who have enough B12 in their system are known to get a boost of energy when taking the vitamin. (In fact, people who have chronic fatigue syndrome sometimes take injections of B12, as do people with absorption problems.) Other symptoms include:
- Loss of balance
- Memory loss
- Feeling listless
- Sore tongue
- Get sick easily
- Numbness/tingling in your hands or feet
So, keep watch, especially if you’re over 60 years of age. If you suspect anything, have your doctor administer a test. For vegetarians and vegans, it’s advisable to take supplements — about two to three g a day. If you have high homocysteine levels, taking 500 g vitamin B12, along with 0.5 to 5.0 mg folic acid and 16 mg pyridoxine, should be effective.