Lecithin Heath Benefits
What is Lecithin?
Lecithin is a phospholipid found in plants and is naturally produced by your liver. It is often found as a food additive as an emulsifier in candy bars.
Natural sources of lecithin are egg yolks, soybeans, and milk products.
Lecithin is sometimes taken as a nutritional supplement because it is thought to have health benefits. For starters, it is a good source of phosphatidylcholine. This is important because phosphatidylcholine is a major component of cell membranes. For example, all of your cell membranes are composed of a phospholipid bilayer.
In addition, choline is a precursor of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is important for cellular communication in both the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and in the peripheral nervous system (the rest of your body).
In the central nervous system, acetylcholine is involved in learning and memory. In the peripheral nervous system, acetylcholine is involved in skeletal muscle movement as well as smooth and cardiac muscle regulation.
Lecithin also contains inositol. Inositol has several functions, including cell membrane structure, and there is some evidence it may even decrease hair loss. There is also evidence that it might help with anxiety disorders, as well as polycystic ovary disease.
Lecithin is also a good source of linoleic and linolenic acids, two essential fatty acids.
Lecithin has also been said to help heal the liver, and also to decrease alcohol cravings. Research studies have shown that lecithin improves the involuntary movements associated with tardive dyskinesia.
Lecithin & Cognitive Function
There have been many research studies regarding dietary lecithin and memory, including research on lecithin's effect on Alzheimer's disease.
Alzheimer's patients are thought to be deficient in choline. If so, then then providing one with additional choline through lecithin supplementation might be beneficial, which is probably the logic behind all of the research studies on lecithin's effect on the disease. Makes sense, doesn't it?
Unfortunately, the evidence for lecithin's ability to correct or reverse Alzheimer's is weak at best, although many of the studies are confounded because they tested lecithin along with another drug, such as Tacrine, which is a a cholinesterase inhibitor.
One reason increasing choline levels might not work to improve Alzheimer's disease is that Alzheimer's patients have a deficiency of the enzyme responsible for converting choline into acetylcholine within the brain (Higgins & Flicker). If so, then what might help Alzheimer's patients would be to increase the deficient enzyme, or find a way of getting acetylcholine into the brain. Perhaps just increasing choline levels won't work.
Some research studies only gave lecithin to Alzheimer's patients for a short time (i.e., 2 weeks), although there were several studies that lasted for 6 months but still found no memory benefit from dietary lecithin for Alzheimer's patients.
Most human research studies have not found lecithin to be helpful for dementia from any cause. However, there are numerous animal research studies that show a benefit of dietary lecithin in preventing and reversing dementia. Mmmmm. We can't be that different, can we?
However, there is evidence that lecithin may enhance memory in basically healthy elderly persons. For example, Safford (1994) found that giving 2 tablespoons of dietary lecithin for 5 weeks to healthy elderly adults increased their memory as compared to control subjects.
Another study by J.M. Davis (1983) found that a single dose (20 grams) given 5 hours before cognitive testing showed no memory improvement in normal young adults. Apparently, choline levels were elevated in the lecithin group, but given the short duration of this study, I don't think that any real conclusions can be drawn. It could be that taking lecithin more long term might affect memory more so than just a single dose. That might explain the opposite findings between this study and one described above.
Does lecithin prevent memory loss? The jury is still out on this one.
Lecithin Side Effects
Lecithin is generally recognized as safe, but if you look through several websites, you'll find lecithin side effects warning you of potential diarrhea and other gastrointestinal disturbances, weight gain, dizziness, and fishy body odor.
After reading these, I was almost afraid to take it, because who wants to smell like fish? And, possibly throw up too! However, I've been taking it for some time now (2 heaping tablespoons of non-GMO soy lecithin granules per day) and so far there is no fishy odor, gastrointestinal problems, or any of the other above mentioned possible side effects. Perhaps if I were to increase the dose I might experience the negative side effects. Or maybe somewhere along the way, someone mentioned the fishy odor and this information just keeps getting repeated by everyone. I have had no side effects from the amount I take and so I'm assuming most people won't (but everyone is different).
Lecithin supplements come in pill form or granules as shown in the photo at the top of the page. I prefer to take mine as granules. I just mix it up into a protein/fruit smoothie every morning. I don't even notice it is there.
If you decide to take lecithin, try to find lecithin that comes from non-GMO soybeans.
My Experience with Lecithin
Has it improved my memory or cognitive functioning? I don't really know. I can't tell. I do think that it may be improving my skin. It doesn't seem as dry as before, perhaps from the fatty acids?
Lecithin is said to enhance mood. It does seem like I don't get quite as worked up as before, but this could be a placebo effect. I'm not sure that lecithin is enhancing my mood - I'm still able to be quite cranky despite taking the lecithin :)
In summary, my experience with lecithin is that I haven't become Einstein after taking it, but I haven't noticed any adverse effects either. The reason I continue to take it is because I think that, based on the components in lecithin, it has the possibility of enhancing my my health, despite the lack of research that tells me that it will do so.
New Research Shows Potential Danger of Lecithin
In the time after I first wrote this article new evidence has emerged that suggests lecithin supplementation may be unsafe.
New research suggests a possible link between lecithin and heart disease. Research has shown that a substance called trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) is produced by bacteria in the intestinal tract after ingestion of lecithin (Wang et al. 2013, Tang et al. 2011). Research has shown that elevated TMAO levels are associated with heart disease. So, at this time, I'm uncertain as to whether or not lecithin supplementation is a good idea.
David, J.M. (1983).
Effect of lecithin on memory in normal adults. American Journal of Psychiatry 1040: 1010-1012.
Higgins, J.P., Flicker, L. Lecithin for dementia and cognitive impairment. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2000, Issue 4. Art. No.: CD001015. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001015.
Safford, Florance (1994). Testing the effects of dietary lecithin on memory in the elderly. Research on Social Work Practice 4: 349-358.
Tang WH, Wang Z, Levison BS, Koeth RA, Britt EB, Fu X, Wu Y, Hazen SL (2013). Intestinal microbial metabolism of phosphatidylcholine and cardiovascular risk. New England Journal of Medicine 17: 1575-1584.
Wang Z, Klipfell E, Bennett BJ, Koeth R, Levison BS, Dugar B, Feldstein AE, Britt EB, Fu X, Chung YM, Wu Y, Schauer P, Smith JD, Allayee H, Tang WH, DiDonato JA, Lusis AJ, Hazen SL. (2011). Gut flora metabolism of phosphatidylcholine promotes cardiovascular disease. Nature 472: 57-63.