Take A Deeper Look—Two Biomarkers of Inflammation

inflammation_diagramWhen the immune system is working properly, inflammation plays a key role in the defending the body against infection and injury. It’s is the first line of defense against viruses and bacteria and works to prevent the invaders from further damage. But when inflammation persists without this type of threat, it becomes a drain on your system. Many of your body’s functions are affected by this overheating effect, and it has a particularly strong correlation with cardiovascular disease (CVD).

You’ve probably heard of C-reactive protein, or CRP. It’s one of the most commonly tested biomarkers for systemic inflammation, and is used to see if there’s infection or bleeding somewhere in the body, or to determine a person’s risk for CVD.

There are other markers that are less commonly tested, but may help paint a clearer picture of the state of inflammation in the body. Let’s take a closer look at two of these markers: homocysteine and fibrinogen.

Homocysteine: What does it do normally?

Homocysteine is an amino acid created through the body’s natural function. The problems begin when blood levels begin to build because homocysteine isn’t being properly broken down (into methionine or cysteine), causing it to become what some consider a vascular toxin.

Screening for homocysteine levels is particularly useful for patients with a personal or family history of CVD, but who don’t have additional risk factors, like smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or obesity.

What happens when it’s out of balance?

While it may not be an independent risk factor, having high levels of homocysteine is correlated with the occurrence of blood clots, heart attacks, strokes and coronary artery disease. Elevated levels are also associated with migraines, hearing loss, macular degeneration, and brain atrophy or dementia.

And because of its molecular structure, homocysteine tends to be involved in reactions that cause oxidative stress. The higher the levels in the blood, the greater the chances of these harmful interactions.

There’s even a link between the two biomarkers we’re discussing here: high homocysteine levels block the natural breakdown of fibrinogen, leading to a buildup of fibrinogen in the blood.

What are causes of imbalance?

Some people are born with genetic issues that don’t allow their bodies to break down homocysteine. But more often, high levels are due to vitamin B deficiency, since B-vitamins play a key role in the breakdown process. For this reason, blood levels of homocysteine tend to be highest in people with diets high in animal protein and low in fruits and leafy vegetables.

Other reasons thought to contribute to high homocysteine levels include high coffee or sugar consumption, aging, cigarette smoking, high cholesterol or blood pressure, and even excessive anger.

Elevated homocysteine levels may also be seen with kidney disease, psoriasis, and low levels of thyroid hormone.

What are some ways to improve levels?

There is evidence that supplementing with B vitamins—especially B6, B9 (folic acid), and B12—may help lower homocysteine levels, along with general healthy lifestyle adjustments. Taking SAMe or 5-MTHF (a more bioavailable form of folic acid), are thought to reduce levels as well.

Fibrinogen: What does it do normally?

Produced in the liver, fibrinogen is a protein that plays a role in wound healing. It forms bridges between platelets, and it converts to fibrin, which is the mesh-like substance that forms the basis of clots over a wound.

What does it do when it’s out of balance?

Too little fibrinogen can impair the body’s ability to form a stable blood clot, resulting in bleeding disorders.

Having too much fibrinogen thickens the blood, as it causes too many platelets to bind together. Also, fibrin, along with LDL cholesterol, contributes to the vascular plaques seen in atherosclerosis.

What are causes of imbalance?

Certain medications can cause a decrease in fibrinogen, including anabolic steroids, phenobarbital, and valproic acid.

High levels may be seen with acute infection or trauma, coronary heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, glomerulonephritis, and other inflammatory diseases. Fibrinogen is also a promising biomarker in detecting chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)—as many as 40% of all COPD patients have high levels of fibrinogen.

Slightly increased levels are sometimes seen with pregnancy, or when taking oral contraceptives or estrogen.

Interestingly, exposure to cold also increases fibrinogen, which may be the reason for the increased risk of heart attack during cold months.

What are some ways to improve levels?

Substances called platelet aggregation inhibitors reduce the risk of clotting. Platelet aggregation inhibitors include aspirin, curcumin (found in turmeric), green tea, ginkgo, and vitamins C and E. But to lower elevated fibrinogen levels directly, look to vitamin A (which helps to break down fibrinogen), beta carotene, and fish or olive oil.

Want to know more?

You can now find out about these lab values and more—including your inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acid levels—with the new WellnessFX Premium package.  As it becomes clearer that chronic inflammation is the cause of many serious illnesses, taking a deeper look at inflammation can reveal more ways to help improve the state of your long-term health.

The posts on this blog are for information only, and are not intended to substitute for a doctor-patient or other healthcare professional-patient relationship nor do they constitute medical or healthcare advice of any kind. Any information in these posts should not be acted upon without consideration of primary source material and professional input from one's own healthcare professionals.