What is lecithin? Why do we need it?
Lecithin is a substance that belongs to a category of fat-soluble substances called phospholipids, which are essential parts of cellular membranes.
Lecithin is produced by the liver, and is needed by the body to not only create cell membranes, but to transport nutrients into out of cells and keep the membranes permeable; without lecithin, the membranes would harden and eventually stop functioning.
Lecithin is composed mostly of phosphoric acid, choline, linoleic acid, inositol, and several B vitamins. The choline in lecithin is used to make acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that is necessary for the brain to function normally, especially in infants. In addition to its natural uses, lecithin is used commercially for items that require emulsifiers (substances that blend fats with water). It acts as a protective covering for many substances, and helps keep items in certain processed foods from separating.
Studies have shown that lecithin may be useful in treating a range of neurological disorders, ranging from multiple sclerosis to memory loss. Animal studies have shown that female rats given lecithin have produced offspring with superior memory and learning skills. (These studies have not been duplicated in humans.) Other research suggests that lecithin can prevent the buildup of fats in the liver and stop gallstones from forming.
How much lecithin should I take?
While there are no recommended daily allowances for lecithin, some researchers have suggested a daily supplement of 550 mg for men and 425 mg for women. Most people receive an adequate amount of lecithin through their diet.
What forms of lecithin are available?
Many animal- and plant-based foods contain good quantities of lecithin, including egg yolks, soybeans, liver, peanuts, and oatmeal. Lecithin is also available as a supplement. To enhance its absorption, researchers recommend that it be taken with meals.
What can happen if I take too much lecithin? Are there any interactions I should be aware of? What precautions should I take?
High doses of lecithin can produce side-effects such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. In addition, because lecithin can increase levels of acetylcholine, it should not be taken by people who suffer from bipolar disorder. High levels of acetylcholine can worsen the condition of people in the depressive phase of bipolar disorder. As of this writing, there are no known drug interactions with lecithin. As always, make sure to consult with a licensed health care provider before taking lecithin or any other herbal remedy or dietary supplement.
- Buchman AL, Dubin M, Jenden D, et al. Lecithin increases plasma free choline and decreases hepatic steatosis in long-term total parenteral nutrition patients. Gastroenterology 1992;102(4-Pt 1):1363-1370.
- DerMarderosian A, Beutler JA (eds.) Facts and Comparisons: The Review of Natural Products. St. Louis, MO: Facts and Comparisons, September 1998.
- Fiume Z. Final report on the safety assessment of lecithin and hydrogenated lecithin. International Journal of Toxicology 2001;20(Suppl 1):21-45.
- Higgins JP, Flicker L. Lecithin for dementia and cognitive impairment. Cochrane Database System Review 2000;(4):CD001015.
- Spilburg CA, Goldberg AC, McGill JB, et al. Fat-free foods supplemented with soy stanol-lecithin powder reduce cholesterol absorption and LDL cholesterol. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 2003;103(5):577-581.