Choline is a water-soluble compound essential to human health. It is neither a vitamin nor a mineral. The body uses choline for a number of important functions, including metabolism and the synthesis of some of the fatty compounds that form cells, according to the National Institutes of Health. (opens in a new tab) (NIH).
Although there is still some uncertainty around just what choline does in the body, research indicates that it helps in the production of neurotransmitters involved in memory, as well as the modulation of DNA. There is also growing evidence that it is important for early brain development in the womb.
Choline plays a role in the synthesis of phosphatidylcholine and sphingomyelin – phospholipids that make up much of the structure of cell membranes, Dr Deborah Lee (opens in a new tab), a medical writer for Dr. Fox Online Pharmacy in the UK, told Live Science. Phospholipids are a type of fatty compound that are part of human cell membranes, controlling what goes in and out of the cell.
A 2021 review in the journal Frontier in Physiology (opens in a new tab) found that these phospholipids are linked to longevity and aging, with a reduction in phospholipids appearing to be a general feature of aging in humans. The review also suggested that different phospholipid molecules are involved in regulating lifespan and health, although more research is needed on their potential mechanisms.
Choline has other functions in the body. “Choline is also necessary for the synthesis of acetylcholine – a major neurotransmitter or chemical messenger,” Lee said. This neurotransmitter is involved in memory, learning, attention and involuntary muscle movements, according to a National Center for Biotechnology Information (opens in a new tab) publication.
A 2023 study in the journal Aging Cell (opens in a new tab) found links between dietary choline deficiency and Alzheimer’s disease in mice. Researchers found that people with impairments had increased levels of amyloid-beta and tau proteins —markers of Alzheimer’s disease—and impaired hippocampal networks responsible for learning and memory. Choline-deficient mice also showed liver damage, enlarged hearts, increased body weight, and impaired motor functions. However, more research is needed to establish a link between choline and Alzheimer’s disease in humans.
Choline is found in a wide variety of foods, says Roxanna Ehsani (opens in a new tab)Florida Registered Dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Some of the best sources of choline include:
- Dairy products, such as milk, yogurt, and cottage cheese
- Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage
- shiitake mushrooms
- Soy and kidney beans
- Peanuts and sunflower seeds
- Whole grains, like quinoa and brown rice
The body produces a small amount of choline in the liver, Ehsani said, but it’s not enough to meet the body’s needs, so dietary sources are also needed.
Although choline supplementation is possible, the NIH (opens in a new tab) says that the forms of choline most commonly available in supplements (choline bitartrate, phosphatidylcholine, and lecithin) need further study to confirm their efficacy and safety. Anyone considering adding a supplement to their diet should consult a doctor first.
Intake recommendations for choline and other nutrients are provided by the Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) of the Institute of Medicine. However, there are insufficient data to establish an estimated mean choline requirement, so FNB instead set adequate intakes (AIs) based on prevention of liver injury as measured by serum alanine aminostransferase levels. For adults 19 and older, that’s 550 micrograms (mg) per day of choline for men and 425 mg for women, according to the NIH. (opens in a new tab). Pregnant or breastfeeding women need 450 mg and 550 mg, respectively.
A serving of beef contains about 356 mg of choline, while a hard-boiled egg contains 147 mg. A serving of broccoli or Brussels sprouts contains 31 mg.
Choline deficiency can negatively impact liver health, a 2013 review in the journal Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care (opens in a new tab) found. The report also suggested that choline needs vary from person to person due to genetic polymorphisms (a difference in an individual’s DNA sequence) that increase their choline demand.
Lee also noted that choline deficiency can lead to health issues. “Inadequate choline intake leads to organ failure with muscle breakdown and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease,” Lee said. “Choline deficiency may also accelerate atherosclerosis, due to its effects on lipoprotein metabolism, and therefore exacerbate the risk of cardiovascular disease.” Atherosclerosis is a buildup of plaque on the walls of arteries, which can restrict blood flow to major organs. This arterial plaque consists mainly of fats and cholesterols.
Research also suggests that choline deficiency can impact fetal brain development. A 2012 prospective study in the journal PLOS One (opens in a new tab) measured the women’s blood choline levels at 16 and 36 weeks of gestation, while infant neurodevelopment was assessed at 18 months. The researchers found that there was a positive association between infant cognitive test scores at 18 months and mothers’ choline levels at 16 weeks’ gestation. They concluded that choline status in the first half of pregnancy is associated with cognitive development in healthy term infants. The study suggests that more work is needed on the potential limitation of choline in the diets of pregnant women.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer medical advice.