Lecithin (also known as alpha-phosphatidylcholine) is a natural nutrient found in food and also sold as a dietary supplement. Lecithin is not a single substance, but rather a group of chemicals belonging to compounds called phospholipids. Phospholipids, a type of fat that helps maintain the integrity of cells, are vital to the normal functioning of the brain, nerves, liver, and other vital organs.1
Lecithin is found in green vegetables, red meat, and eggs. Commercial preparations are often made from soybeans, egg yolks, or animal products. Not only is lecithin taken as a supplement, but it is also used in the manufacture of eye drops, skin moisturizers, and food emulsifiers (agents that prevent ingredients from separating).
As a supplement, lecithin is thought to lower cholesterol and treat some neurological and inflammatory conditions. However, it is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for any of these purposes.
Benefits from Lecithin
When ingested, lecithin is broken down into a substance called choline, which the body uses to transport fats, regulate metabolism, maintain the structural integrity of cells, and facilitate nerve transmissions (by synthesizing a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine). Choline is not readily produced by the body; most is obtained from the foods we eat
Lecithin has been touted for its benefits in treating many health conditions and is said to:
- Improves sleep patterns
- Improves athletic performance
- Relieves stress and anxiety
- Lower cholesterol
- Reduce inflammation
- Improve liver function
- Prevent loss of cognitive function and the onset of dementia
A 2010 study published in the journal Cholesterol reported that soy lecithin, administered daily as a 500 milligram (mg) supplement, reduced total cholesterol levels by 42 and "bad" LDL cholesterol levels by 56.15 after two months. This suggests that lecithin may be an effective supplemental treatment for hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol).
That said, lecithin also plays a role in the development of atherosclerosis ("hardening of the arteries"), with some studies suggesting that excessive intake may increase cardiovascular risk. Further research is needed.
Ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory bowel disease that has been linked to low levels of a chemical found in lecithin called phosphatidylcholine. Phosphatidylcholine, a component of mucus in the digestive tract, helps protect the colon from inflammation and bacterial infiltration in the stool.
A 2010 study published in Digestive Diseases reported that lecithin supplements reduced intestinal inflammation in people with ulcerative colitis by 50% compared to those treated with a placebo. The results, however, were limited by the small size of the study (18 adults). Other studies have not found such benefits.
Mastitis, the inflammation of breast tissue, is a common complaint in nursing mothers. Some studies have reported that lecithin may help prevent clogged milk ducts leading to mastitis. Lecithin appears to reduce the viscosity of breast milk and is generally considered safe for human consumption
That said, lecithin remains understudied in women with mastitis and should not be used without first consulting an obstetrician or other qualified health professional.
Lecithin-derived choline is thought to improve cognitive function in people with Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia (including Parkinson's dementia).
As a precursor to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, lecithin may help increase nerve transmissions in the brain and alleviate the symptoms of these progressive and often devastating neurological disorders. To date, results supporting these benefits are lacking.
There is currently no evidence that supplemental lecithin can slow or reverse the progression of dementia in people with Alzheimer's or any other neurological disorder.
However, some animal studies have suggested that lecithin may have a neuroprotective effect, reducing the risk of dementia by slowing the degeneration of glial cells that protect and stabilize brain tissue. Further research is needed.