Choline is not a vitamin or a mineral, but it is an essential nutrient. Although the body can create choline in small amounts, it cannot make enough to maintain health. Choline must be consumed in the diet.
Choline is a component of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that is involved in functions such as muscle movement, and memory formation.
Most of the body's choline is found in phospholipids, which are fat molecules. The most common of these is phosphatidylcholine, better known as lecithin.
Choline's functions include:
- Helping to maintain the structure of the cell membrane
- Aiding in the transmission of nerve impulses
- Playing a role in the conversion of homocysteine to methionine (elevated levels of homocysteine have been associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease)
- Helping to transport fat and cholesterol out of the liver
Although the body can make choline, it cannot make enough to maintain proper health and functioning. Therefore, it is possible for your choline levels to become too low if your diet does not contain enough. Because choline is essential for the transport of fat from the liver, deficiency symptoms include:
- Fatty accumulation in the liver, called "fatty" liver
- Liver damage
The tolerable upper intake level (UL) for choline from dietary sources and supplements combined is:
Symptoms of choline toxicity include:
- Fishy body odor
- Increased salivation
- Increased sweating
- Hypotensive effect (lowering blood pressure)
Major Food Sources
Very little information is available on the choline content of foods; however, some good sources of choline include:
- Beef liver
- Wheat germ
- Atlantic cod
- Brussels sprouts
- Peanut butter
- Milk chocolate
The following populations may be at risk for a choline deficiency and may benefit from a supplement:
- Strict vegetarians—A choline deficiency may result if you do not eat animal products, including milk or eggs.
- Endurance athletes—Studies have shown that some choline may be lost during intense training.
Because choline is a precursor to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is important in learning and memory, it has been studied for a possible role in Alzheimer's disease. Studies have been conducted, but a review of clinical trials found no benefit of supplementation with lecithin in the treatment of people with dementia.
Tips for Increasing Your Choline Intake
To help increase your intake of choline:
- At breakfast, spread a little peanut butter on your bagel or toast in place of butter or cream cheese.
- Hard boil an egg and grate it onto a salad at lunchtime.
- For dinner, drink a glass of milk instead of soda.
- Try sprinkling granular lecithin on top of your cereal, oatmeal, salad, or stir-fry. Just a few teaspoons is all you need.
- If you are taking a multivitamin/mineral supplement, make sure that it contains choline or lecithin.
- Reviewer: Brian Randall, MD
- Review Date: 09/2012 -
- Update Date: 09/17/2012 -