Choline may labor in obscurity — if you haven’t heard of it, you’re in the majority — but it’s an essential nutrient that does important work in the body.
And now there’s some research that lends some credence to claims that the nutrient may be something of a “brain food” that fends off cognitive decline in old age.
Choline (pronounced KO-lean) plays a critical role in a wide variety of biochemical chain reactions, including some that are necessary for very basic functions, like keeping cell membranes intact. It and a more familiar vitamin, folate, share a nutritional teeter-totter: the less folate in your diet, the more choline you need, because choline serves the same function as folate in several metabolic pathways.
In the brain, choline speeds up the creation and release of acetylcholine, a protein that carries signals among brain cells and is important for memory and assorted other brain functions. The brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease have lower levels of acetylcholine than people without the disease, and the medications used to treat the early stages of the disease — donepezil (Aricept), galantamine (Reminyl), and rivastigmine (Exelon) — work by blocking an enzyme, cholinesterase, that dismantles acetylcholine.
The research that showed brain benefits from choline was based on an analysis of data from an offshoot of the famous Framingham Heart Study called the Framingham Heart Study Offspring Study. A team of researchers from Boston University and Harvard estimated the choline intake of the offspring study’s participants from their answers to detailed questionnaires about the foods they ate. Then they looked for correlations between choline intake and brain health, as assessed by tests of memory and other cognitive abilities and MRI scans of the brain.
Two findings popped out. First, people whose diets included a lot of choline were more likely to do well on the memory and cognitive ability tests. Second, the MRI scans showed that high choline consumption in the past was associated with healthier brain tissue.
This is just one study. Proof will come only with more research, and the Health Letter isn’t recommending that you start taking choline supplements. Yet it’s not an isolated finding, either. There is a promising pattern of suggestive findings that choline could, at least, be helpful with keeping our cognitive abilities intact.
Eggs, milk, peanuts, and some types of fish (cod, salmon, and tilapia, for example) are good natural sources of choline. Choline also happens to be one of those rare cases when processed foods may have some nutritional benefit. Lecithin, a soybean-derived substance that is often used in processed food to blend (emulsify) fat and water, is between 3% and 4% choline. You can also take choline supplements. The standard dose is 250 milligrams (mg).
The recommended daily intake of choline is 550 mg for adult men and 425 mg for adult women (women need less because they are usually smaller than men). The safe upper limit is 3,500 mg a day.
In the Framingham study, the average daily intake of 320 mg a day fell short of the recommendations. But other research has found that the typical American gets more than enough choline, with consumption averaging between 700 and 1,000 mg a day.
In large amounts, choline can cause low blood pressure, sweating, and too much saliva. Excessive amounts can also produce a fishy body odor because choline gets metabolized into trimethylamine, a substance that smells like fish.