We Know: All About Lecithin

What is Lecithin?

The term "Lecithin" refers to several substances that are either used in the body or which have chemical properties for commercial use, primarily as a food additive. In probably its most common, public usage Lecithin refers to a type of fat known as a phospholipid (because it contains a lot of phosphorus) which is metabolized in the body and which some people use as a nutritional supplement for health and vigor. Lecithin contains significant amounts of the nutrients choline, linoleic acid (an essential fatty acid), and inositol.

What does Lecithin do in the body?

Lecithin's has several very important functions in the body. It helps create cell membranes, the protective sheath surrounding the brain, and one of the primary brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters, acetylcholine, which allows the transmission of nerve impulses in the brain. It emulsifies fats--a sort of chemical gathering up process--which helps capture and remove cholesterol and other fats from the bloodstream and it aids liver function by helping process fats and cholesterol and assisting in the elimination of the toxins which the liver captures.

Is Lecithin considered an essential nutrient?

No, because the body manufactures all the Lecithin it needs.

Then what's the big deal about Lecithin?

In natural food circles, Lecithin has always had a good reputation as a supplement because it is so rich in the biochemical substances noted above. This has led to claims that it can make you smarter, aid in the prevention of arteriosclerosis and heart disease, treat alcoholism, viral hepatitis, general memory loss, Alzheimer's, depression, and tardive dyskinesia, and more. There is ongoing research that lend support to some of these claims.

Can you get supplemental Lecithin from that added to foods?

Lecithin's use as a food additive is widespread and you're likely to find it in everything from baked goods to chocolate to ice cream to salad dressings and more. It is effective as a food additive because of its emulsification properties which are a kind of glue that assist in keeping other substances together. But this type of Lecithin is low in the choline substance, which is actually termed phosphatidylcholine, and this is the chemical that really buzzes the natural health folks. The food additive form of Lecithin normally contains only about about 20 % phosphatidylcholine; for true supplementation purposes it is recommended you look for a much higher percentage, generally 50 % or higher.

What about Lecithin supplements then?

Lecithin can be purchased in capsule, granular, or liquid form. But inexpensive supplements are generally not considered any better than the food additive type of Lecithin because most contain a low amount of phosphatidylcholine. Finding supplements with high amounts phosphatidylcholine will require some self education on your part because the way this chemical is listed on supplements can vary greatly and you simply have to be able to understand the labels and be able to do some calculations to ferret out the percentage you're looking for.

Most supplements and the food-grade Lecithin come from soy which has a low amount of phosphatidylcholine. But, please note, that eggs contain very high amounts of this chemical, in the range of 70%.

Any risks from too much Lecithin?

Lecithin supplementation is generally considered safe. But too much of anything can always be a problem. Very high doses of Lecithin have been known to cause sweating, nausea, vomiting, bloating, and diarrhea. Extremely large doses can reportedly cause you to acquire a fishy body odor because of the high choline content. Of even more concern, too much choline has reportedly caused heart rhythm abnormalities.

Because of the choline content, which can affect the brain, anyone who has bipolar disorder, or who is dealing with depression or other similar neurological challenges, should not take any Lecithin or choline-containing substances without first consulting with their health care provider because of the potential for serious side effects.

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