What is lecithin
Lecithin is a fat-like substance from a mixture of phospholipids, fatty acids, triglycerides and other components. It enters the body with food and is also produced in small amounts by the liver.
Lecithin phospholipids are part of cell membranes. And one of its components, choline, supports
liver health and is involved in the metabolism of acetylcholine in the brain. This neurotransmitter transmits signals between nerve cells and regulates muscle contraction, memory, mood, and more.
The daily quota of lecithin is not determined, but it is recommended to take 425 mg of choline per day for women and 550 mg for men and breastfeeding mothers.
Nutritional supplements are made mostly from soy or sunflower. They contain between 360-2,500 mg of phospholipids per serving and 10-250 mg of choline.
What beneficial effects are attributed to lecithin
Supplement manufacturers claim that lecithin capsules and powders protect the liver, lower cholesterol, normalize digestion, support brain function and increase energy levels. Below we’ll examine whether these claims have any scientific basis.
Experiments on rats showed that lecithin supplements reduce cholesterol and low-density lipoproteins, which contribute to plaque formation on vessel walls.
In the only study involving humans, supplementation with 500 mg of soy lecithin reduced total cholesterol by 40% and “bad” cholesterol (low-density lipoproteins) by 42-56%.
However, only 30 elderly people with hypercholesterolemia participated in the experiment – clearly not enough to prove the effectiveness of the supplement for everyone.
Protecting the liver from nonalcoholic fat disease
One review study with data from 56,000 people found that those who consumed more than 400 mg of choline per day had a 25-32% lower risk of developing fatty liver dystrophy than those getting less than 200 mg/day.
Another review paper with data from 664 patients found that choline deficiency was associated with a more severe form of fibrosis–overgrowth of liver connective tissue in postmenopausal women.
Even a short period of deficiency can be detrimental to the health of the organ. For example, in one experiment, a diet deficient in choline (less than 10% of the recommended level) led to liver damage in 77% of menopausal men and women over 42 days.
However, with a normal diet, choline deficiency is rare and threatens mostly pregnant women, people with genetic abnormalities, or patients on total parenteral nutrition (bypassing the GI tract, directly into the bloodstream).
And in any of these cases, a doctor should prescribe supplements.
Reducing liver damage from alcohol exposure
Several experiments on rodents and monkeys have shown that soy lecithin supplements can reduce liver damage from repeated alcohol use.
The supplements helped the animals reduce fatty liver dystrophy, avoid cirrhosis, and slow the development of fibrosis. However, it doesn’t seem to work in humans.
In one experiment, 789 middle-aged people with 20 years of alcoholism, fibrosis and incomplete cirrhosis were given plant-based phosphatidylcholine supplements. The people did not quit drinking, though at the end of the experiment they reduced the amount of alcohol they drank per day.
Two years later it turned out that the supplement had not stopped the progress of liver fibrosis and had no effect on the condition of the organ.
Thus, taking lecithin is unlikely to help stop the destruction of the liver under the influence of ethanol. At least if you continue to drink alcohol.
Reduced risk of breast cancer
One cohort study tested data from 6,500 women between the ages of 25 and 74, about half of whom had breast cancer.
According to the calculations, those who took lecithin supplements were less likely to get cancer. The association was particularly strong in postmenopausal women.
However, the efficacy and safety of high doses of lecithin has not been proven, and one review study is not enough to recognize the supplement as a cure for cancer.
Improved brain function
One study involving 16 older people with Parkinson’s disease found that 32 grams of lecithin a day slightly improved cognitive function and motor skills. However, the scientists noted that no significant progress was made.
At the same time, we found no studies confirming the benefits of lecithin for memory, attention and other cognitive functions in healthy people.
Increased energy levels and stress tolerance
In only one experiment, 1.2 g of lecithin a day for 8 weeks helped postmenopausal women feel more alert.
In another study, 400-800 mg of the supplement softened the response to psychological stress in a group of young people of both sexes.
However, these data are not enough to conclude that lecithin is effective.
Can lecithin do any harm?
Lecithin is considered safe and in some cases recommended even for infants. However, excessively high doses can cause harm in the long run.
The fact is that the bacteria that inhabit the gut use choline to produce trimethylamine. This in turn is then oxidized by liver enzymes to a substance that contributes to the accumulation of cholesterol and the formation of deposits on the walls of the arteries. Its amount is directly linked to the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Also consumption of choline in high doses (more than 3.5 g per day) can cause fishy body odor, vomiting, increased sweating and salivation, hypotension and liver damage.
But given that lecithin supplements contain no more than 250 mg of choline, you have to eat at least 14 servings at a time to get side effects.
Should you take lecithin supplements?
Lecithin can be obtained from common foods: chicken, fish, potatoes, nuts, legumes, grains and vegetables.
Eggs and liver are especially rich in it. In 100 grams of beef liver there are 3,3 g of lecithin and 356 mg of choline, and in one chicken egg – 2 g of lecithin and 147 mg of choline. Moreover, lecithin is used as an emulsifier in chocolate, margarine and various sauces.
So you can do without the additives, especially since their benefits are unobvious and unproven. If, however, you are worried about your liver and want to reduce the risk of choline deficiency, to begin with, go to your doctor and undergo all the necessary tests.
A person’s need for this substance is strictly individual and depends not only on nutrition, but also on the amount of estrogen, genetic characteristics and even the intestinal microflora.