There are thousands of studies on the necessary nutrients that should be incorporated into the diet. But, specifically, the one known as choline remains almost anonymous to the vast majority of people. In fact, it is most likely that many have never heard of this substance. However, for specialists, it is time for choline to get the attention it deserves.
What Is Choline?
It is a naturally occurring water-soluble amine whose chemical formula is C5-H15-NO2. It was first isolated from egg yolk; hence it is also commonly called lecithin (from the Greek “lekithos,” meaning egg yolk), although lecithin is actually composed of several substances (phosphatidylcholine, phosphatidylethanolamine, and phosphatidylinositol).
The function of this molecule is related to the B vitamins, although, in reality, it has no recognized function as a co-enzyme. This molecule is a source of methyl groups and is necessary for the synthesis of phosphatidylcholine, phosphatidylethanolamine, and sphingomyelin; these phospholipids are essential components of all biological membranes. It is also a forefather of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that is involved in many functions, including nerve impulse and memory.
Functions In The Body
Choline plays a very important role in the body. It helps in the transmission of nerve impulses, being the precursor of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter involved in skeletal and visceral muscle contraction; it also helps in cellular communication and is a structural component of cell membranes. Some studies have found a relationship between higher choline intake (and higher blood concentrations) and better cognitive function (such as visual and verbal memory).
Choline also helps transport fat and cholesterol to the liver and tissues that require them. A deficiency is related to fatty liver disease, known as non-alcoholic cirrhosis. During pregnancy, its intake is especially important since it plays a role similar to folic acid (to protect against neural tube defects) and contributes to the brain growth of the fetus. Also, during infancy, choline helps the cognitive development of children.
Another reason why choline is important is because it is a precursor of key substances:
- Phosphatidylcholine – a substance that keeps cell membranes young, not only in the brain but in all organs. It favors the inflow of nutrients and the outflow of cellular waste products, intercellular communication, and energy production.
- Sphingomyelin – whose deficiency favors cellular aging.
- Acetylcholine – a neurohormone involved in memory and cognition. Adequate levels of this substance seem to protect against degenerative brain diseases, such as senile dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Optimal doses for this protective effect are currently being studied.
- Betaine – fat detergent, and liver protector. An essential product for the treatment of a rare disease (homocystinuria), it appears to have a protective effect on the arteries.
As with all substances, excess of choline is harmful, although extremely rare and not very serious. In people receiving three to five times the normal dose intravenously, body odor, excessive sweating, salivation, hypotension, and mild liver toxicity were detected. Other research suggests that higher amounts of this molecule may increase the risk of heart disease.
If a person’s choline concentration drops too low, he or she may experience muscle and liver damage, as well as fatty deposits in the liver. Liver disease, atherosclerosis, and possibly neurological disorders may occur. A symptom of deficiency is an elevated liver ALT enzyme level.
It is very important that women who are pregnant take enough, as low choline intake can cause defects in the baby’s neural tube and can affect their children’s memory. A study found that a diet high in choline shortly before and after conception was associated with a lesser risk of neural tube defects. If low concentrations intake causes an elevated homocysteine level, it raises the risk of preeclampsia, premature birth, and low birth weight.
We can find it in eggs with 125 mg, which, when the yolk is removed, decreases the amount of choline. Beef liver, which besides being a source of nutrition for athletes, is rich in choline, 90 grams of liver contains 325 mg of choline. Other foods containing this nutrient are wheat, peanuts, chicken, fish, cod, soybeans, broccoli, cauliflower, milk, yogurt, shrimp, and brussels sprouts.
Experts have established the recommendation for adults at a daily intake of 550 and 425 milligrams of choline in men and women, respectively, taking into account that the requirements are higher during pregnancy and lactation. To cover the recommendations, as an example, one large egg already contains more than half of the recommended daily amount. However, the amount needed varies according to age:
- Birth to 6 months 125 mg
- Infants 7 to 12 months 150 mg
- Children from 1 to 3 years 200 mg
- Children 4 to 8 years 250 mg
- Children 9 to 13 years 375 mg
- Adolescents (boys) 14 to 18 years 550 mg
- Adolescents (girls) 14 to 18 years 400 mg
- Males over 19 years 550 mg
- Females over 19 years 425 mg
- Pregnant women 450 mg
- Breastfeeding women 550 mg