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 fat-like compounds that make up cells, according to the National Institutes of Health (opens in new tab) (NIH).
While there is still some uncertainty about all that choline does in the body, research indicates that it aids in the production of neurotransmitters involved in memory, as well as modulating DNA. There is also increasing 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 a large part of the structure of cell membranes, Dr. Deborah Lee (opens in new tab), a medical writer for Dr Fox Online Pharmacy in the UK, told Live Science. Phospholipids are a type of fatty compound that is part of human cell membranes, which control what goes in and out of the cell.
A 2021 review in the journal Frontier in Physiology (opens in new tab) found that these phospholipids are related to longevity and aging, with a reduction in phospholipids appearing to be a common feature of aging in humans. The review also suggested that several phospholipid molecules are involved in regulating health and longevity, although more research is needed on their possible mechanisms.
Choline has other functions in the body. “Choline is also necessary for the synthesis of acetylcholine — an important 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 new tab) publication.
A 2023 study in the journal Aging Cell (opens in new tab) found links between dietary choline deficiency and Alzheimer’s disease in mice. The researchers found that those with a deficiency had elevated levels of the proteins amyloid-beta and tau — markers for Alzheimer’s disease — and altered hippocampal networks, responsible for learning and memory. The choline-deficient mice also had liver damage, enlarged hearts, increased body weight and decreased 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, said Roxanna Ehsani (opens in new tab)a registered dietitian in Florida and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Some of the best sources of choline are:
- Dairy products, such as milk, yogurt and cottage cheese
- Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage
- Shiitake mushrooms
- Soybeans and kidney beans
- Peanuts and sunflower seeds
- Whole grains, such as quinoa and brown rice
The body does produce 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.
While supplementing choline is possible, the NIH (opens in new tab) says the most commonly available forms of choline in supplements (choline bitartrate, phosphatidylcholine, and lecithin) need further investigation to confirm their effectiveness 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 average requirement for choline, so the FNB instead established adequate intakes (AIs) based on the prevention of liver injury as measured by serum alanine aminostransferase levels. For adults ages 19 and older, this is 550 micrograms (mg) per day of choline for men and 425 mg for women, according to the NIH (opens in new tab). Pregnant or lactating 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 new tab) found it. 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 demand for choline.
Lee also noted that a choline deficiency can lead to health problems. “Inadequate intake of choline results in 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 thus exacerbate the risk of cardiovascular disease.” Atherosclerosis is a buildup of plaque on artery walls, which can restrict blood flow to major organs. This arterial plaque consists mainly of fats and cholesterols.
Research also suggests that choline deficiency may affect fetal brain development. A 2012 prospective study in the journal PLOS One (opens in new tab) measured choline levels in the blood of women at 16 and 36 weeks of pregnancy, while infants’ neurological development was assessed at 18 months of age. Researchers found that there was a positive association between babies’ cognitive test scores at 18 months and the mothers’ choline levels at 16 weeks of 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 research is needed on the potential restriction of choline in pregnant women’s diets.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice.