5 Reasons Lecithin Has Been a Popular Natural Product for Over 100 Years
By Dr. Michael Murray
In this article:
Lecithin is a naturally occurring fatty substance found in many plant and animal sources. The use of lecithin as a “functional food” was first popularized with soy lecithin way back in 1907. Recently, because of concern with soy in regard to inundation with GMO forms and its allergenicity, sunflower-derived lecithin has emerged as a popular form as well. Lecithin is available as granules but can also be found in soft-gel capsules. The main components of lecithin are fatty compounds known as phosphatides of which the most highlighted is phosphatidylcholine. This compound is also a key structural factor in human cell membranes and is critical to cellular health.
Through the many years that lecithin has been on the market, it has enjoyed kind of a roller coaster ride in its popularity. With so many consumers opting for whole food choices in their dietary supplements, lecithin’s popularity is trending up once again. Here are 5 key health benefits of lecithin.
Although choline can be manufactured in the body from either the amino acid methionine or serine, it was designated an essential nutrient by the Institute of Medicine in 1998. The reason? It turns out that even in healthy people the amount a person can manufacture is not enough to meet our body’s needs.
Choline functions in the manufacture of the important neurotransmitter acetylcholine as well as in cell-membrane signaling compounds. It also acts as a “methyl” donor like folic acid and vitamin B12. It also performs a vital function in the proper transport of fats. Without choline, fats become trapped in liver cells, which can contribute to a condition known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Dietary phosphatidylcholine is the main dietary source of choline and lecithin is the richest source of phosphatidylcholine.
Some studies have shown that a higher intake of choline is associated with improved mental function and memory. This benefit is the result of increasing the levels of the brain chemical acetylcholine, which plays a big role in memory and brain function. Supplementing the diet with phosphatidylcholine has been documented to increase acetylcholine levels in the brain. Initially, researchers thought this would make phosphatidylcholine very helpful in Alzheimer’s disease. It was a reasonable expectation since low acetylcholine levels are very common in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. However, it is not just acetylcholine levels that are a problem in Alzheimer’s disease. It turns out that the real issue is an impaired activity of the enzyme acetylcholine transferase. This enzyme combines choline (as provided by phosphatidylcholine) with an acetyl molecule to form acetylcholine. Since providing more choline does not mean there is an increase in the activity of this key enzyme, studies with phosphatidylcholine supplementation showed little benefit in the majority of patients with Alzheimer's disease. The best chances of producing benefits are with very high dosages (i.e., 25-30 grams) of phosphatidylcholine. The good news is that if supplementation with phosphatidylcholine is going to be of value in Alzheimer’s disease the results will be clear in the first two weeks of use.
While phosphatidylcholine or lecithin may not boost brain function in all cases of Alzheimer’s disease, it does seem to help most other people. In a study conducted in Norway, 2,195 adults between the ages of 70–74 years showed a strong connection to brainpower and choline levels. People who had lower levels of choline in their blood had lower brainpower and cognition than those with higher choline concentrations. This study suggests that choline supplementation via either lecithin or phosphatidylcholine may increase choline levels and as a result boost brainpower.
The benefit noted may be related to dosage as results from clinical trials have shown very good results in improving brain function, but in some studies, results were not as impressive. The baseline choline levels of each person may also be a factor. Think of positive benefits being achieved only if the brain’s choline “cup” is full. If someone’s cup is nearly full, they may respond very well to a lower dosage while someone whose cup is nearly empty may need much higher dosages. The inconsistency of results from these clinical studies may simply indicate that there is a choline threshold in the blood and brain that must be achieved in order for people to see benefits.
Since choline levels are not routinely tested for and the cost of lecithin is so reasonable, trying supplementation with choline for about 4-weeks may help battle challenges with memory or cognition. If no effect is noticed, I would recommend doubling the dosage for another 4 weeks.
When the liver is damaged it leads to the depositing of fat within the liver. This process can occur with liver damage caused by alcohol, however, there is a new epidemic form called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). It ranges in severity from a rather benign impairment of liver function to inflammation of the liver referred to as non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), which may advance to cirrhosis and eventually liver failure. The biggest cause is being overweight. NAFLD occurs in over 70% of patients who are 10% above ideal body weight and nearly 100% of those who are obese.
Choline, especially phosphatidylcholine, is required in the transport of fats from the liver. If levels of choline are low, fat accumulates in the liver leading to NAFLD. Low levels of choline dramatically increase the progression to the more serious liver issue, the cirrhosis of the liver due to NASH. In a cross-sectional study of 664 subjects from the Nonalcoholic Steatohepatitis Clinical Research Network, postmenopausal women who had NASH and a choline intake less than 50% of the recommended adequate daily intake had more severe fibrosis.
Obviously, these associations suggest lecithin or phosphatidylcholine supplementation may have some benefit in both NAFLD and NASH. The results from a pilot study begs the question “why isn’t there more research given the possible benefits?” The study was published back in 2001 in the Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition. It involved adults on intravenous feeding who had NAFLD. Feeding these patients an additional 2 grams of choline per day completely resolved the NAFLD in every single patient.
Despite the lack of conclusive research, even the United States National Institute of Health acknowledges that “Adequate choline intake is needed for proper liver function and to prevent NAFLD.”
Perhaps the most common reason many people take lecithin is to help with lowering cholesterol levels in an effort to prevent heart disease. There is some clinical evidence to support this use. While some small studies conducted over 50 years ago showed rather impressive results, there has been little research since. The evidence that does exist also shows very positive effects. In a total of 15 clinical trials with a duration of treatment with lecithin ranging from 1 and 12 months, total serum cholesterol was lowered by 8.8% to 28.2%, triglyceride levels decreased by 25%, and HDL cholesterol levels increased by 13.4% to 20%. The typical dosage in these studies was 1.5 to 2.7 g daily.
The most recent study was published in the medical journal Cholesterol in 2010. In the study, 30 patients with high cholesterol levels were given as a daily dosage of 500 mg of soy lecithin with a high concentration of phosphatidylcholine for 2 months. The supplement lowered total cholesterol levels and LDL cholesterol levels by 42% and 56%, respectively. These are impressive results that will hopefully lead to further studies. If these results hold, hopefully, it will lead to a resurgence in the popularity of lecithin as a safe and effective natural approach to high cholesterol levels.
While phosphatidylcholine is a major component of lecithin, there are other valuable compounds including other phosphatides like phosphatidylserine, another key brain compound that has been shown to reduce stress, boost mood, and improve memory in clinical studies. The phosphatidylethanolamines of lecithin are also particularly interesting for their effects on reducing inflammation, especially in the liver. Here is the typical profile of either soy or sunflower derived lecithin, but please be aware that there are many different concentrations of these components available commercially:
- 23% Phosphatidylcholine
- 14% Phosphatidylethanolamine
- 14% Phosphatidylinositol
- 5–10% Other phosphatides
- 2–5% Sterols
- 25% Phosphatidylcholine
- 18% Phosphatidylethanolamine
- 11% Phosphatidylinositol
- 5-10% Other phosphatides
- 2-5% Sterols
What form and how much lecithin should you take? First, soy vs. sunflower. From a practical perspective, as you can see above, they are very similar though since sunflower lecithin is a relatively new form, it has no real research behind it. So, there is always the possibility that there is something in soy lecithin that is different that produces some benefits that are missing in sunflower lecithin. The reason that sunflower lecithin was developed was to get away from the GMO aspects of soy as well as the fact that soy is a common allergen. That said, if a person does not have an issue with soy and the product is certified Non-GMO, soy is perfectly fine.
Lecithin is available in granules and soft gelatin capsules. The concentration of phosphatidylcholine or total phosphatides can vary significantly. Some products are also available where the oils (linoleic and linolenic acid) have been removed to increase the concentration of phosphatidylcholine and total phosphatides. So, read labels carefully when comparing products and focus on the stated phosphatide content.
As far as dosage goes, the typical range used for lowering cholesterol or supporting liver health with products containing higher concentrations of phosphatides (35 to 68%) is 500 to 1,500 mg daily. At this dosage level capsules are generally used. For boosting brain health and overall health, lecithin granules are generally used at a dosage of one heaping tablespoon daily that may be as high as 10 grams providing a total phosphatide level of approximately 5,000 mg daily (or higher if using the oil-free versions).
Lecithin is generally regarded as safe with no significant side effects noted. At higher dosages (i.e., greater than 10 grams) lecithin preparations may cause reduced appetite, nausea, abdominal bloating, gastrointestinal pain and diarrhea.
There are no known drug interactions and lecithin is safe during pregnancy and lactation. Children can even use lecithin, just reduce dosage to less than one-half the adult dosage.
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