These closely related nutrients are essential to the functioning of every cell in your body. They're particularly important for the liver and nerves. No wonder so many nutritionists urge us to get more of them.
What are they?
Lecithin (pronounced Less-a-thin) is a fatty substance found in many animal and plant-based foods, including liver, eggs, soybeans, peanuts and wheat germ. It is also often added to processed foods – including ice cream, chocolate, margarine and salad dressing – to help blend, or emulsify, the fats with water. In addition, the body manufactures it.
Lecithin is considered an excellent source of the B vitamin choline, primarily in the form called phosphatidylcholine. Once in the body, the phosphatidylcholine breaks down into choline, so that when you take lecithin, or absorb lecithin from foods, your body obtains choline. However, only 10-20% of the lecithin found in plants and other natural sources consists of phosphatidylcholine. You can buy lecithin supplements that contain higher concentrations of phosphatidylcholine, but they can be expensive. In most situations, just taking plain lecithin, rather than the more costly phosphatidylcholine, is more than adequate.
Though dietary lecithin is a primary source of choline, choline is also found in liver, soybeans, egg yolks, grape juice, peanuts, cabbage, cauliflower and other foods. You can buy choline supplements, and it is often included in B-complex vitamins or other combination formulas.
What it does?
Lecithin and choline are needed for a range of body functions. They help to build cell membranes and facilitate the movement of fats and nutrients in and out of cells. They play a role in reproduction and in fetal and infant development; they are essential to the health of the liver and gall bladder; and they may help the heart. Choline is also a key component of the brain chemical acetylcholine, which plays a major part in memory and muscle control. As a result of these far-flung effects, all sorts of claims have been made for lecithin and choline – from curing cancer and AIDS to lowering cholesterol. Even though the evidence for some of these claims is weak, these nutrients should certainly not be dismissed out of hand.
Lecithin and choline may be especially helpful in the treatment of gall-bladder and liver diseases. Lecithin is a key component of bile, the fat-digesting substance, and low levels of this nutrient are known to precipitate gallstones. Taking supplements with lecithin or its purified extract, phosphatidylcholine, may treat or prevent this disorder. Lecithin may also be beneficial for the liver. The results of a 10-year study on baboons showed that it prevented severe liver scarring and cirrhosis caused by alcohol abuse. Other studies have indicated that it's helpful for liver problems associated with hepatitis.
Choline is often included in liver complex formulas along with other liver-strengthening supplements, such as the amino acid methionine, the B-vitamin inositol, and the herbs milk thistle and dandelion. These preparations, often called lipotropic combinations or factors, can help to prevent the build-up of fats within the liver, improve the flow of fats and cholesterol through the liver and gall bladder, and help the liver to rid the body of dangerous toxins. They may be especially helpful for liver or gall-bladder diseases, such as hepatitis, cirrhosis or gallstones, as well as for conditions that are alleviated by good liver function, such as endometriosis (the leading cause of female infertility) or side effects from chemotherapy. Choline, along with the B-vitamins pantothenic acid from thiamine, may also help to treat heartburn.
These two nerve-building nutrients may be useful for improving memory in those with Alzheimer's disease, preventing neural tube birth defects (spina bifida), boosting performance in endurance sports, and treating twitches and tics (tardive dyskinaesia) caused by antipsychotic drugs. They have also been proposed as possible remedies for high cholesterol, and even cancer. However, more studies are needed to define their role in these and other diseases.
- Help to prevent gallstones.
- Aid liver function, making them useful in the treatment of hepatitis and cirrhosis.
- Help the liver to rid the body of toxins in patients undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.
- Relieve heartburn symptoms.
- May boost memory and enhance brain function.
- Soft gel.
- Reminder: If you have a medical condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.
How to take it?
The usual dosage of lecithin is two 1200 mg capsules twice a day. It can also be taken in granular form: 1 teaspoon contains about 1200 mg. Choline can be obtained from lecithin, although phosphatidylcholine (500 mg three times a day) or plain choline (500mg three times a day) may be a better source. Choline can also be taken as part of a lipotropic combination product. There is no RDI for lecithin or choline, although some experts recommend 550 mg for men and 425 mg for women.
Guidelines for use:
Lecithin and choline should be taken with meals to enhance absorption. Granular lecithin has a nutty taste and can be sprinkles over foods or mixed into drinks.
Possible side effects
In high doses, lecithin and choline may cause sweating, nausea, vomiting, bloating and diarrhoea. Taking very high dosages of choline (10 g a day) may produce a fishy body odour or a heart rhythm disorder.
- Lecithin supplements vary widely in amount of their active ingredient, phosphatidylcholine. To be effective, lecithin should have a concentration of 35% or more.
- Choline, along with vitamin A, is beneficial for asthmatics, as it helps to repair the surface of the lung. The recommended dose is 3 teaspoons of lecithin granules a day, taken with food.
A lack of choline shows up very quickly. Healthy adult American men who were put on a strict 30-day choline-deficient diet displayed elevated liver enzymes, a clear indicator of liver problems. Supplementing their diet with lecithin restored their livers to normal function.
It's a long way from rats to people, but a new study suggests a memory-enhancing effect for choline. Rats fed extra choline produced offspring that performed much better in memory and learning skills than those whose mothers were on a normal diet. Conversely, offspring of the rats deprived of choline did poorly on memory tests.
Did you know?
There's no RDI for lecithin or choline but deficiencies are rare. Most Australians and New Zealanders get enough of these nutrients in their daily diet – about 6 g of lecithin and up to 1 g of choline.