What Is It?
Lecithin is a fatty substance manufactured in the body and widely found in many animal- and plant-based foods, including eggs, liver, peanuts, soybeans, and wheat germ. Lecithin is often used as an additive in such processed foods as ice cream, margarine, and salad dressings, because it helps blend (or emulsify) fats with water. Lecithin is also available in supplement form.
Lecithin is considered an excellent source of choline, one of the B vitamins. Once in the body, a key component of lecithin–phosphatidylcholine–breaks down into choline. Now available in dietary supplement form, phosphatidylcholine (PC) might be thought of as a purified extract of lecithin. It is commonly recommended for treating liver, nerve, and a variety of other conditions, including multiple sclerosis and memory loss.
Although dietary lecithin is the primary source of choline, this nutrient is also available through food; it appears in high concentrations in liver, egg yolks, peanuts, cauliflower, soybeans, grape juice, and cabbage. Choline is also present in concentrated form in various B-complex vitamins.
Most North Americans get enough lecithin and choline in their daily diets, and deficiencies are rare. That’s fortunate because every cell in the human body needs these nutrients to function properly.
Lecithin and choline help form cell membranes and transport fats and nutrients into and out of cells. They are also involved in human reproduction and fetal and infant development. In fact, choline must be included in all FDA-approved infant formulas.
These nutrients also play a vital role in keeping the nervous system healthy.
Specifically, phosphatidylcholine, and in some cases lecithin or choline alone, may help to:
Treat memory loss or impairment. Many nutritionally oriented doctors consider phosphatidylcholine a valuable nerve-building nutrient that might be able to help slow or reverse memory loss. As a phospholipid–a fat-soluble substance–this nutrient serves as a major structural component of brain cells.
Perhaps even more important, phosphatidylcholine plays a key role in supplying sufficient choline to the brain, where it’s used to manufacture the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Levels of acetylcholine are known to dwindle with age and this decline is associated with age-related memory impairment.
In one study involving rats, mothers given extra choline produced offspring with memory and learning skills superior to the offspring of those rats on a regular diet. And the offspring of mothers whose diet was deficient in choline performed poorly on memory tests. There have been no human trials to test phosphatidylcholine’s effectiveness for memory or nerve problems in humans, however.
Protect the liver from alcohol abuse and hepatitis. Phosphatidylcholine is believed to speed the flow of fats and cholesterol through the liver, prevent the buildup of fats within the liver, and assist the liver in eliminating dangerous toxins from the body.
A 10-year study of baboons found that lecithin prevents two serious side effects of alcohol abuse: severe liver scarring and cirrhosis. Other research suggests that it may also be suitable for liver problems caused by hepatitis. There are no human studies so far, however.
Choline is frequently found in combination with such liver-strengthening ingredients as the B vitamin inositol, the amino acid methionine, and the herbs dandelion and milk thistle in preparations called lipotropic combinations.
Prevent gallstones. Low levels of lecithin, an important constituent of the fat-digesting substance known as bile, may promote gallstones. That’s why taking lecithin supplements (or its purified extract, phosphatidylcholine) may help to avert often painful gallstones.
Be sure to check out our Dosage Recommendations Chart for lecithin and choline, which lists therapeutic dosages for specific ailments at a glance.
There are no RDAs for these nutrients, but scientists have established an Adequate Intake for choline: 550 mg a day for men and 425 mg for women.
If You Get Too Little
Lecithin and choline deficiencies are rare.
If You Get Too Much
High doses of lecithin and choline can produce such side effects as sweating, nausea, vomiting, bloating, and diarrhea. Extremely large doses of choline (10 grams a day) can cause a fishy body odor or a heart-rhythm abnormality.
General Dosage Information
Most Americans get enough of these nutrients in their daily diet–about 6 grams of lecithin and up to 1 gram of choline.
Guidelines for Use
Although both lecithin and choline are available as individual supplements, the most effective way to elevate choline levels in the body is to take phosphatidylcholine. (Another reason not to take individual choline supplements is that large amounts have been known to produce a fishlike smell in the user.)
To enhance absorption, take phosphatidylcholine with meals.
Consider sprinkling granular lecithin over foods or adding it to drinks. It has a nutty flavor.
There are no known drug or nutrient interactions associated with lecithin, choline, or phosphatidylcholine taken in commonly recommended dosages.
Because individual phosphatidylcholine, lecithin, or choline supplements can increase levels of acetylcholine, they should not be used by individuals who are suffering from bipolar disorder. High levels of acetylcholine can worsen the “depressive” phase of this condition.
Consult your doctor before taking phosphatidylcholine if you suffer from depression; it may worsen your condition.
Alcoholism 420 mg phosphatidylcholine 3 times a day
Gallstones 1 capsule (1,200 mg or 19 grains) lecithin twice a day
Heartburn 500 mg choline 3 times a day
Hepatitis 420 mg phosphatidylcholine twice a day
Memory Loss/Impairment 420 mg phosphatidylcholine twice a day with meals
Multiple Sclerosis 420 mg phosphatidylcholine twice a day
Stroke 420 mg phosphatidylcholine twice a day
David Edelberg, MD