The Benefits of Choline and Why Your Brain Needs It
Choline is a crucial nutrient for cognition and healthy aging. However, it isn’t very well-known — it wasn’t even recognized as an essential nutrient until 1998 when researchers began to realize its importance in fetal and infant brain development.
Now, choline is researched for its wide-reaching benefits throughout the entire life cycle, including protecting the health and integrity of the brain in older age.
In this article, learn more about this vitamin-like nutrient, including what foods contain choline, the benefits of choline to your brain, and the best way to supplement with it.
What Does Choline Do in the Body?
Although choline is not technically a vitamin, it behaves very similarly to those in the B-vitamin family. Our bodies can produce a small amount of choline, but we need to get most of it through food or supplements.
It’s rare to be completely deficient in choline, but low or inadequate levels are widespread, impacting brain health as we age. It’s estimated that only 10% of Americans consume the recommended amount of choline each day, which is 425 mg for women and 550 mg for men.
Choline is needed to synthesize phospholipids, which are fats that comprise the majority of our cell membranes. The most common choline-containing phospholipid is phosphatidylcholine, which accounts for about 95% of the choline in our tissues. This means that choline is a crucial component of maintaining the structure and integrity of cell membranes.
Additional functions of choline include its involvement in cell signaling, fat transport and metabolism, and neurotransmitter synthesis. Choline is a precursor to acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter responsible for muscle contractions, pain responses, memory regulation, and circadian rhythm.
What Foods Have Choline?
Choline is found in higher amounts in animal foods than plant foods, with the best food sources being egg yolks, liver, and seafood. Good plant sources of choline include Brussels sprouts, soybeans, and broccoli. For reference, approximately four egg yolks would supply the recommended daily choline needs for men, while almost nine cups of Brussels sprouts would be needed to provide the same amount.
The Brain-Boosting Benefits of Choline
From the gestation period to the geriatric years, choline is a necessary nutrient for healthy brain function. In animal and human studies, choline has shown neuroprotective abilities, especially with supporting memory and cognitive function.
The majority of choline’s benefits to the brain are due to its synthesis of phosphatidylcholine in cell membranes, including the membranes of brain cells like neurons and glial cells.
In addition, acetylcholine is necessary for preventing the loss of cholinergic neurons; dysfunction or reduction of these choline-requiring nerve cells is a leading cause of impairment in attention, memory, and learning.
A study of healthy adults, published in December 2011 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that those who consumed more dietary choline had better verbal and visual memory test scores. Also, those who consumed more choline had a reduction in the presence of white-matter hyperintensity, which is a common finding in patients with cognitive disorders.
In a review published in April 2005 in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, results from 14 studies looking at CDP-choline (a precursor to phosphatidylcholine) and cognition were analyzed. The researchers concluded that short- or medium-term CDP-choline supplementation is associated with improved memory and behavior in adults with cognitive loss.
Lastly, choline has been found to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain, both of which are risk factors for cognitive disorders.
The link between choline and neuroinflammation involves homocysteine, an amino acid associated with an increased risk of cognitive loss when its levels are elevated. High homocysteine promotes oxidative stress and neuronal cell death.
As discussed in a September 2013 review published in Nutrients, choline acts as the methyl donor in one of the pathways that convert homocysteine into methionine. This conversion effectively reduces levels of circulating homocysteine and, therefore, its neuroinflammatory potential.
Choline Supplements and Safety
If you are vegan, vegetarian, or don’t tend to consume choline-rich foods daily, a supplemental form may be beneficial.
There are many forms of supplemental choline, including CDP-choline (also known as citicoline) and Alpha-GPC (L-Alpha glycerylphosphorylcholine), which can cross the blood-brain barrier.
Many choline supplements are made of choline salts, which include choline chloride and choline bitartrate. However, choline salts do not cross the blood-brain barrier in humans and are likely not as effective.
Phosphatidylcholine is also available as a supplement, although choline is not concentrated in this form, with only about 13% choline by weight.
Choline supplements are generally considered safe, although high doses over 10,000 mg per day are associated with a fishy body odor, vomiting, salivation, and sweating. The tolerable upper intake level (UL) for adults is currently set at 3,500 mg per day.
- Choline is necessary for maintaining cell membrane integrity, acetylcholine synthesis, and reducing neuroinflammation.
- Consuming high amounts of dietary or supplemental choline is associated with better memory and cognition.
- The best food sources of choline are egg yolks, seafood, and liver; supplemental forms are also easily accessible.
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