Comprehending the Importance of Choline

Choline, a water-soluble nutrient, is the newest official member of the B vitamin family. Even though it has only recently been adopted as a vitamin, choline has been the subject of nutritional investigations for almost 150 years. Adolph Strecker discovered choline in 1864 and it was chemically synthesized in 1866. In the late 1930s, scientists discovered that tissue from the pancreas contained a substance that could help prevent fatty build-up in the liver. This substance was named choline after the Greek word chole, which means bile.

Today, we know that choline is a component of every human cell. In 1975, scientists discovered that choline increased the synthesis and release of acetylcholine by neurons. These discoveries lead to the increased interest in dietary choline and brain function. In 1998, choline was classified as an essential nutrient by the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine (USA).

Choline can:

  • Keep your cell membranes functioning properly: The naming of choline after the Greek word for bile was appropriate. Bile, which is made in your liver, has the primary job of making fat compatible with water, so that fat-based substances can get transported around your body in your water-based blood. Choline has very similar fat-modifying effects in the membranes of your cells, the gates through which nutrients enter and wastes leave. The fat-modifying properties of choline allow your cell membranes to operate with greater flexibility in handling both water- and fat-soluble molecules. Without choline, many fat-based nutrients could not enter your cells, and many waste products could not leave.
  • Allow your nerves to communicate with your muscles: Choline is a key component of acetylcholine, a messenger molecule in your nervous system. Acetylcholine, also called a neurotrasmitter because it carries messages from and to nerves, is your body’s primary chemical means of sending messages between nerves and muscles.
  • Reduce chronic inflammation: People whose diets supply more than 310 milligrams of choline daily have levels of inflammatory markers at least 20% lower than people whose diets supplied less than 250 milligrams of choline daily, including:
    • 22% lower concentrations of C-reactive protein
    • 26% lower concentrations of interleukin-6
    • 6% lower concentrations of tumor necrosis factor alpha

    Each of these markers of chronic inflammation has been linked to a wide range of conditions including heart disease, osteoporosis, cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s, and type-2 diabetes.

  • Reduce your risk of atherosclerosis, heart attack, stroke, liver damage, osteoporosis, and possibly Alzheimer’s disease: Risk of these serious diseases is associated with high blood levels of a molecule called homocysteine. Choline allows homocysteine to be converted into other substances, thus preventing any build-up. In particular, betaine, a  metabolite of choline (which is also found naturally in vegetables such as beets and spinach), can also lower your homocysteine levels. People whose diets supplied more than 360 milligrams per day of betaine, a, had, on average, 10% lower concentrations of homocysteine in their blood than people whose diets provided  less than 260 milligrams per day of betaine.
  • Promote brain health: Choline is a key component of many fat-containing structures in cell membranes, including phosphatidylcholine and sphingomyelin. Because your cell membranes are made up almost entirely of these fat-containing structures, their flexibility and integrity depend on adequate supplies of choline. In your brain, these fat-like molecules account for an unusually high percentage of total solids, so choline is particularly important for brain health.
  • Reduce allergy symptoms: Choline supplements reduced symptoms of allergic rhinitis.

You may have heard of the supplement SAMe, which is used for depression, anxiety, heart disease, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, bursitis, tendonitis, chronic lower back pain, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, slowing the aging process, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), improving intellectual performance, liver disease, Parkinson’s disease, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, seizures, migraineheadache, and lead poisoning. SAMe, also known as SAM (s-adenosyl-methionine) is a substance synthesized in your body and required for cellular growth and repair. It is also involved in the biosynthesis of several hormones and neurotransmitters that affect mood, such as dopamine and serotonin. A complicated chemical cycle called the SAM cycle requires choline, along with vitamins B6B12, and folate; the amino acids serine and glycine; and the molecules betaine, sarcosine, and ethanolamine. Throughout the SAM cycle, all of these molecules are actively exchanging chemical components—and especially chemical structures called methyl groups—in order to keep your body supplied with adequate amounts of SAM. A methyl group is a chemical structure with one carbon atom and three hydrogen atoms, and the term methylated means that a substance has at least one methyl group. Choline is trimethylated, which means that three methyl groups are attached. Many important chemical events in your body are made possible by the transfer of methyl groups from one place to another. For example, genes in your body can be turned on and turned off in this way, and cells often use methylation to send messages back and forth. In order for choline to obtain all three methyl groups, it needs niacinfolate, and the essential amino acid methionine. In the context of the SAM cycle, one of choline’s jobs is to keep methyl groups cycling around for eventual donation to SAM. The movement of methyl groups around the SAM cycle is particularly dependent on folate, which is particularly good at accepting methyl groups from other molecules.

Recommended daily intakes (RDI) of choline were set in 1998 at 550 milligrams per day for men and 425 milligrams a day for women. No RDI has been set for betaine, which, because it is a metabolite of choline, is not considered an essential nutrient.

Mild deficiency of choline has been linked to fatigue, insomnia, poor ability of your kidneys to concentrate urine, problems with memory, and nerve-muscle imbalances. Choline deficiency can also cause deficiency of another B vitamin critically important for health, folate. Extreme dietary deficiency of choline can result in liver dysfunction, cardiovascular disease, impaired growth, abnormalities in bone formation, lack of red blood cell formation, infertility, respiratory distress in newborns, failure to thrive in newborns, kidney failure, anemia, and high blood pressure. Because the nervous system messenging molecule, acetylcholine, cannot be made without choline, deficiency may lead to high blood pressure and respiratory distress. Because the cell membrane component phosphatidylcholine cannot easily be made with out choline, deficiency may lead to kidney failure and lack of red blood cell formation. Finally, many of these problems may be related to a breakdown in fat transport and metabolism that makes fat unavailable as an energy source. The consequences of choline deficiency are particularly visible in the liver, because a lack of choline prevents your liver from packaging and transporting fat in a natural pattern. The primary symptom of this change in fat-packaging is a decrease in the blood level of very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL), a complex fat-containing molecule that your liver uses to transport fat. As part of this same unnatural pattern, levels of triglycerides in your blood can also become greatly increased as a result of choline deficiency.

In addition to poor dietary intake of choline itself, poor intake of other nutrients can result in choline deficiency. These nutrients include niacinfolate, and the essential amino acid methionine. Folate deficiency is especially likely to disrupt SAM cycle balance, and in the process, choline status as well. Liver problems, including liver cirrhosis, are common contributing factors to choline deficiency. Finally, hospital procedures, including TPN feeding (total parenteral nutrition directly into the bloodstream), by-pass surgery, and kidney transplant are also triggers of choline deficiency.

High doses of choline (10-15 grams) have been linked with unusual body odor, vomiting, increased salivation, and sweating. The “fishy” body odor appears to be associated with increased presence of a breakdown product of choline called trimethylamine. Doses of choline in the 5-10 gram per day range have also been associated with reductions in blood pressure and in some subjects, feelings of faintness or dizziness. The National Academy of Sciences has established a Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) of 3.5 grams per day for choline, based primarily upon risk of decreased blood pressure.

Eggs, milk, liver, red meat, poultry, shell fish, and fish are all high choline, and within 24 hours, gut bacteria can turn choline into a toxic substance called trimethylamine, which then gets oxidized in your liver to trimethylamine-n-oxide (TMAO), which then circulates throughout your bloodstream. TMAO may increase the buildup of cholesterol in the inflammatory cells in the atherosclerotic plaques in your arteries, increasing your risk of cardiac surgery, heart attack, stroke, and death. Choline consumption is associated with developing prostate cancer, spreading it, and a significantly increased risk of dying from it. Men who consume one egg every three days (or more) have an 81% increased risk of lethal prostate cancer. Harvard researchers speculate that the TMAO from high dietary choline intake may increase inflammation and this may promote progression of prostate cancer to lethal disease.

The good news is that vegans don’t develop TMAO-producing bacteria in their guts. In the same way that people who don’t eat enough fiber don’t develop enough fiber-consuming microbes, people who don’t eat animal flesh or secretions don’t develop bacteria that digest animal products, so they don’t produce trimethylamine in their guts.

The richest source of choline found in the U.S. diet comes from lecithin (phosphytidylcholine). Lecithin is most often added to foods as an emulsifier (a substance that helps keeps food components blended together). Most of the lecithin in the U.S. food supply is derived from soybeans. Food sources of choline include: soybeans and soybean products, collards, brewer’s yeast, chard, cauliflower, peascornspinach, potatoes, asparagus, peanuts and peanut butter, crimini mushrooms, grapefruit, oats, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, green beans, miso, and tomatoes. Many of these foods contain not only choline itself, but also other forms of the vitamin including lecithin (phosphatidylcholine) and sphingomyelin.

Food

Serving Size

Calories

Amount (mg)

DV

Soy Lecithin Granules

1 heaping tablespoon (7.5 grams)

60

225

52.9%

Collard Greens

1 cup cooked

49.4

60.42

14.2%

Brewer’s yeast

1 tablespoon

53

60

14.1%

Chard

1 cup cooked

35.0

50.23

11.8%

Cauliflower

1 cup raw

26.8

47.40

11.2%

Green Peas

1 cup raw

115.7

40.91

9.6%

Corn, frozen, boiled

1 cup

134

36.14

8.5%

Spinach

1 cup cooked

41.4

35.46

8.3%

Potato, baked

1 medium

161

25.6

5.9%

Asparagus

1 cup raw

26.8

21.44

5.0%

Peanut Butter

2 tablespoons

188

20.99

4.9%

Crimini Mushrooms

1 cup

19.1

19.23

4.5%

Grapefruit

1 large

103

19

4.5%

Oatmeal, cooked

1 cup

166

17.08

4.0%

Broccoli

1 cup raw

30.9

17.02

4.0%

Brussels Sprouts

1 cup raw

37.8

16.81

4.0%

Green Beans

1 cup raw

31.0

15.30

3.6%

Miso

1 tbs

34.2

12.41

2.9%

Tomatoes

1 cup raw

32.4

12.06

2.8%

Choline’s participation in cell membranes and in the fatty portion of food renders it susceptible to alteration by oxygen and heat. Avoid overcooking foods high in choline to help preserve choline content.


This blog uses the latest nutritional data available from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), and the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration), as well as nutritional data provided by food growers and manufacturers about their products. We believe the information on this website to be accurate. However, we are not responsible for typographical or other errors. Nutrition information for recipes is calculated by Living Cookbook based on the ingredients in each recipe based on statistical averages. Nutrition may vary based on methods of preparation, origin and freshness of ingredients, and other factors.

This blog is not a substitute for the services of a trained health professional. Although we provide nutritional information, the information on this blog is for informational purposes only. No information offered by or through this blog shall be construed as or understood to be medical advice or care. None of the information on this blog should be used to diagnose or treat any health problem or disease. Consult with a health care provider before taking any product or using any information on this blog. Please discuss any concerns with your health care provider.

8 thoughts on “Comprehending the Importance of Choline

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