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Nutrient Redux

When Old Is New Again: Lecithin and Choline

In the days when Arnold, the governator, ruled the posing platforms, the choices in food supplements for bodybuilders were comparatively primitive. Most protein powders were a Hobson’s choice of raw-meat extracts redolent of the slaughterhouse or milk and egg proteins composed of cheap skim-milk extracts and a whopping 1 percent egg white. Other supplements, such as liver tablets and brewer’s yeast, while beneficial, also produced such side effects as excessive gas’a high price to pay for a few B-vitamins.

These days supplement consumers demand products that are relatively easy on the palate and that don’t skimp on nutrient content or quality. Even so, some old-time food supplements deserve a second look, among them lecithin and choline. Years ago they were known as lipotropic and were said to aid the loss of bodyfat when used in conjunction with exercise and diet. Then their popularity waned. Emerging research, however, shows that lecithin and choline have properties that may boost both overall health and bodybuilding efficiency.

Been Around Awhile

Choline was originally discovered in mammalian tissues back in 1862, and its importance in human nutrition was first recognized during experiments with insulin in the 1930s. Scientists removed the pancreas in animals (where insulin is synthesized), then gave them insulin injections. Those without a pancreas all developed fatty livers, the first stage of liver failure, and most of them died. The cause of the fatty liver was traced to a choline deficiency. Choline is required in the liver to process fat, and without it fat builds up there. Eventually, scar tissue and even liver cancer can develop.

Lecithin and choline are also required in the liver to produce lipoproteins that transport fat in the blood, which is where the idea that choline is a fat burner originated. Recent research shows that choline is also directly involved in one aspect of actual fat mobilization.

Results of animal-based studies, later verified in human studies, show that choline affects the body’s retention of L-carnitine. That’s significant because L-carnitine helps shuttle fatty acids into the portion of the cell known as the mitochondria, where fat is oxidized’a process known as beta-oxidation. The problem with carnitine is that the body retains only 20 percent of an oral dose. The new studies show that choline increases carnitine retention, thus blunting the otherwise rapid oral-dose excretion.

Lecithin, also known as phosphatidylcholine, contains about 13 percent choline by weight. It’s a phospholipid, meaning that it contains both fatty acids and the mineral phosphorus. It’s similar in structure to the common fat known as triglyceride, except that instead of containing glycerol, lecithin contains choline.

Lecithin is also a zwitterion, which means it contains a negative electrical charge at one end and a positive charge at the other. That’s what gives lecithin its superior emulsifying property quality, and it explains why you see it as an ingredient in many foods, particularly those that contain fat. Since lecithin has a close relationship with fat, it occurs naturally in many foods high in fat and cholesterol. One of the richest natural sources of lecithin and choline is egg yolks. Egg whites are pure protein, but half the protein in an egg is in the yolk, and all other nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals and 300 milligrams of choline are found exclusively in the yolk. Think about that when you’re about to discard the yolks in favor of the whites.

Indeed, the common bodybuilding practice of discarding the yolks of eggs and eating only the whites makes no nutritional sense. Years ago the experts told us to discard the yolks because that’s where the egg’s cholesterol is’about 300 milligrams per large egg. Yet recent studies show that eggs aren’t the culprit in higher plasma cholesterol levels. The true villain is saturated fat, which the liver handily converts into cholesterol. If anything, the lecithin in the yolks tames their cholesterol content.

In the past many scientists decried lecithin’s reputation as a ‘cholesterol fighter,’ but new research has confirmed that it does help curb elevated cholesterol levels. One recent study, for example, found that in rats given supplemental lecithin, the production of bile increased, which resulted in lower blood cholesterol levels as the cholesterol was diverted into bile synthesis.1

Lecithin and choline also help prevent cardiovascular disease. The polyunsaturated fats in lecithin reduce elevated blood cholesterol levels, inhibit intestinal absorption of cholesterol in food and increase excretion of cholesterol and bile. Lecithin also increases levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which removes excess cholesterol from the blood. The methyl groups found in lecithin and choline help reduce homocysteine, a metabolite of the amino acid methionine that’s implicated in the onset of cardiovascular disease. Choline is a key component of plasmalogen, a phospholipid found in the heart’s cellular membrane. Much of the damage that occurs following a heart attack is laid to an excessive breakdown of plasmalogen caused by a lack of oxygen to the heart’s cells.

Other recent research shows that lecithin is part of a process known as cell signaling, which involves second messenger substances, such as G proteins, that convey hormonal instructions to the cellular interior. Without that ongoing process, cells couldn’t replicate, grow or absorb and use nutrients for energy. Disruption of cellular signaling may play a role in the onset of such degenerative diseases as Alzheimer’s.

Choline is required for the synthesis of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter in the brain. In fact, acetylcholine is the most active neurotransmitter in the areas of the brain linked to memory and intelligence. That’s why some think that extra choline may favorably affect memory and learning. The idea isn’t as farfetched as you may think, and research shows that brain levels of choline vary with dietary intake. One study showed that when extra choline is supplied to women during the final three months of pregnancy, their children show increased intelligence and brain protection for the rest of their lives.

When choline is supplied to people with such brain diseases as Alzheimer’s, the results are often disappointing. One reason is that older people can’t absorb choline into the brain as readily as younger people can. Another is that when neurons in the brain that synthesize acetylcholine are damaged, they may not be able to use the choline. Nonetheless, most current drug therapy for treating Alzheimer’s involves drugs that blunt acetylcholine breakdown in the brain. ALL Can’t Live Without ‘Em

In the absence of choline, fat rapidly increases in the liver and eventually leads to scar tissue, or cirrhosis, the first step toward both liver failure and liver cancer. Interesting studies done with baboons show that giving the animals lecithin appears to prevent the onset of liver cirrhosis.2 Another recent study, again involving animals, shows that lecithin, like some herbs, offers adaptogenic, or stress-relieving, properties.3 Under high-stress conditions acetylcholine may be depleted, and lecithin bolsters acetylcholine levels in the body. That’s consistent with other data showing that when brain nerve cells don’t get sufficient choline, they break down and use existing choline stores, which eventually leads to neuron death.

What about the stress of exercise or sports activity? Acetylcholine not only works in the brain but is also the chemical that transmits nerve signals to muscles. Without it your muscles couldn’t contract. During some forms of surgery, patients receive the drug curare, which works by interfering with acetylcholine functions in muscle and has the effect of ‘freezing’ all muscular movement until another drug neutralizes its effects. The idea of using curare for this purpose came from South American Indians, who use arrows dipped in curare to paralyze animals they hunt.

Research on the effects of choline or lecithin supplements on exercise show that choline may become depleted during exercise such as long-distance running. During shorter-span activities, choline stores don’t often become depleted. One study found that supplemental choline, at a dose of 50 milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight, had no effects on physical or cognitive performance.4

On the other hand, in those who take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for pain relief, lecithin may prevent their most common side effect, gastrointestinal distress. One study reported a 90 percent drop in pain in those who took lecithin with the drugs for eight days.

One significant problem with choline supplements is that in an estimated 1 percent of people, a genetic enzyme deficiency causes intestinal bacteria to convert them into trimethylamine, leading to a body odor that smells like rotting fish. But oral doses of lecithin don’t have that noisome effect. In addition, lecithin leads to higher, more sustained and longer-retained blood levels of choline.

The recommended daily dose of choline for adult men is 550 milligrams, with the maximum tolerable dose 16 to 20 grams. The best food sources are egg yolks and beef liver. Fruits and vegetables, while containing many vital protective nutrients, aren’t good sources of lecithin or choline. Overdosing on choline causes nausea, sweating, appetite loss and possibly heart rhythm disturbances.

The research confirms that lecithin and/or choline are supplements to consider for anyone on an extended lowfat diet or for anyone interested in optimum brain, heart and liver function. Or you can take the easy route: Eat those egg yolks!


1 LeBlanc, M.J., et al. (2003). Effects of dietary soybean lecithin on plasma lipid transport and hepatic cholesterol metabolism in rats. J Nutr Biochem. 14:40-48.
2 Lieber, C.S. (1994). Phosphatidylcholine protects against fibrosis and cirrhosis in the baboon. Gastroenterology. 106:152-159.
2 Kumar, R., et al. (2002). Antistress and adaptogenic activity of lecithin supplementation. J Alt Comp Med. 4:487-92.
3 Duester, P.A., et al. (2002). Choline ingestion does not modify physical or cognitive performance. Military Medicine. 167:1020-25. IM

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