In order to produce the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, your brain needs an essential nutrient, the so called choline. Acetylcholine is one of the most important neurotransmitters, since it plays a key role in memory, learning, and arousal. Consequently, it’s not surprising that doctors often associate memory-loss related diseases with the deficit of acetylcholine. However, healthy people can have inadequate levels too, due to a poor diet. (1)
What is choline?
The Institute of Medicine acknowledged choline as a required essential nutrient in 1998. It’s a water-soluble, organic compound and strictly speaking, we can’t categorize it neither as a vitamin nor a mineral. However, it’s often called as a B vitamin, because they have several similarities. (2)
Choline is important for general health, since it plays a key role in many functions, including:
- Helping with DNA synthesis
- Making fats, that support the structural integrity of cell membranes
- Producing compounds that act as cell messengers
- Removing cholesterol from the liver
In addition, it’s also vital for a healthy nervous system. As a result, it has an impact on:
- Brain development
- Mental health (3)
Your brain needs choline, but can’t produce it on it’s own
While your liver can produce smaller amount of choline, it can only cover about 10% of your brain’s requirement. That being the case, you need to rely on external sources to provide your brain with the vast majority of the necessary choline. In other words, your body’s ability to produce the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (which is once again crucial for memory and learning) will be very limited if your diet is not on point. (4)
In order to determine your body’s need of choline, you need to take into account the following factors:
Of course, as always genetics will be decisive too, so it’s hard to give you precise numbers. Nevertheless, according to the National Institute of Health the recommendation is:
- birth to six months male and female: 125 mg/day
- 7-12 months male and female: 150 mg/day
- 1-3 years male and female: 200 mg/day
- 4-8 years male and female: 250 mg/day
- 9-13 years male and female: 375 mg/day
- 14-18 years female: 400 mg/day, pregnancy: 450 mg/day, lactation: 550 mg/day
- 19+ years female: 425 mg/day, pregnancy: 450 mg/day, lactation: 550 mg/day
- 13+ years male: 550 mg/day (1)
Moreover, a couple of other factors may further increase you brain’s choline needs:
- Regular, long endurance trainings (5) (6)
- Too much alcohol consumption (7) (8)
- Postmenopause (9) (10)
Unfortunately, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, the overwhelming majority of people don’t meet these requirements. Based on the data, in the 20-59 age group males consume about 406-421 mg/day, and females 290-303 mg/day. (11)
Symptoms and risks of deficiency
If you experience any of the following issues, consuming more choline might be useful:
- Brain fog
- Difficulties with focusing
- Having a hard time understanding new things
- Memory issues
- Trouble with problem-solving and thinking clearly
- Feeling tired all the time
- Rapidly and intensely fluctuating emotions
- Muscle aches and nerve pain
In some cases, choline deficiency can cause more serious health problems, including:
Studies on memory and brain function
A large body of scientific studies associate choline consumption with enhanced brain function. For instance, improved memory performance and better processing speed are two common observations. (15) (16)
During one of the researches, scientist examined the effects on verbal memory. There were 95 participants, and some of them received 1,000mg CDP-choline (citicoline)/day while the other group had a placebo for 3 months. After that, all of the partakers received both placebo and 2,000mg choline/day. As far as the first experiment concerned, choline enhanced their performance on the delayed logical memory tasks. With regards to the next phase, the outcome was even more spectacular. The higher choline intake clearly resulted in improved delayed, and also immediate logical memory performance. In simple terms, choline enhanced their verbal memory. (17)
In addition, choline might be beneficial for people who have Alzheimer’s disease as well. During a 6-month long study, researchers examined the effects of phosphatidylcholine supplementation on candidates with early Alzheimer’s. Although the results were not groundbreaking, there were some smaller improvements in the memory performance of a couple of participants. (18)
As far as animal studies are concerned, researchers also examined the effects of increased choline intake during pregnancy. According to the results, it might help improve fetal brain development. However, we will need more evidence with human studies as well to be perfectly sure about this. (19) (20) (21)
Possible effects on mental health
Based on the available evidence, choline might be also useful in the treatment of certain mental health related problems.
For instance, one of the relevant researches suggest that consuming more choline can help with anxiety. Nevertheless, it can’t ease depression. (22)
Food sources – How hard is it to eat enough choline?
As I already mentioned, most of the people don’t consume adequate amount of choline. Actually, in a 2007 research 90% of the American population were said to be choline deficient. So is it really that challenging to provide your body with this invaluable brain nutrient via food? Unfortunately, it is. (25)
First of all, let’s see a couple examples how a grown woman, and man can meet the above mentioned requirements:
- Adult woman 425 mg/day: about 22 grapefruits or half a chicken or 3 pounds of broccoli/day
- Adult man 550 mg/day: about 27 grapefruits or 2 pounds of chicken or 4 pounds of broccoli/day
As you can see, these are not realistic goals for most of us. That being the case, to make life easier, here’s a list of the most powerful food sources, including the choline density mg/100 mg product:
- Egg yolk 682
- Fish caviar 491
- Brewer’s yeast 400
- Raw beef liver 333
- Shiitake mushrooms 202
- Wheat Germ 84
- Codfish 84
- Quinoa 70
- Chicken 66 (26)
If you do the math, it’s still not easy, but not impossible either. Ideally, try to include more of these foods to your diet, instead of just stuffing yourself with egg yolks. As an additional help, dietary supplements can be helpful too.
Since during most of the above mentioned studies researchers used nutritional supplements to increase choline intake, it can work for you as well. You can find products that exclusively contain choline, and it is also an important component of a lot of complex brain supplement formulas. CDP-choline and L-Alpha Glycerylphosphorylcholine (GPC) are the best choices, since they have the highest choline content per unit weight and you can easily absorb them.
If you want to take something that contains only choline, the Amazon’s choice winner Jarrow Formulas CDP Choline can be a perfect choice.
In case you want to use something that provides you with additional brain nutrients as well, you should check the Amazon Best Seller ONNIT Alpha Brain Memory and Focus Supplement. Beside being a powerful source of GPC Choline, it contains Vitamin B6, L-Tyrosine, and Oat (straw) extract to further help the production of neurotransmitters.
Whichever supplement you will choose, always follow the instructions on how you should take it. While it’s very difficult to get too much Choline (since it’s even difficult to reach the adequate amount), excessive intake can cause diarrhea and vomiting. This can occur after 3,500 mg/day, which is fortunately definitely not easy to exceed.
Choline is a key nutrient and most people don’t get enough of it, since it’s difficult to obtain the adequate amount only from food. It’s scientifically proven that it plays a role in general health, and it’s extremely important for optimal brain function, including memory, focus, learning and processing speed. In case you want to learn new things more effectively, try to increase your daily choline intake.