Choline Rich Diet
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
Choline is not actually a mineral or a vitamin but is known as an essential micronutrient needed for many body functions. Choline is a water-soluble nutrient related to other B vitamins.
It is important for liver function, normal brain development, nerve function, muscle movement, supporting energy levels, and to maintain a healthy metabolism.
Choline is present as phosphatidycholine, which is a compound made from the structural part of fat and can be found in different types of foods that naturally contain certain fats.
Choline helps in the process of methylation, for nerve signalling, and detoxification. Choline is needed for the proper functioning of an important neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which helps muscles to move, nerves to communicate and it also acts as an anti-aging neurotransmitter.
Symptoms of a choline deficiency
- low energy levels
- memory loss
- cognitive decline
- learning disabilities
- muscle aches
- nerve damage
- mood changes or disorders
People with ‘fatty liver’ have a higher risk of choline deficiency. Fatty liver, also known as fatty liver disease (FLD) is a reversible condition where triglyceride fat accumulates in liver cells. It commonly develops with people who: have excessive alcohol intake, excessive sugar intake, are obese, suffer with diabetes or a form of insulin resistance, or have other diseases that influence fat metabolism.
A choline deficiency may also play a part in cognitive decline, including memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease. This is because choline helps with neurotransmitter maintenance.
Eating a varied diet is the best way to ensure you have adequate choline. Choline is found predominantly in animal products, so vegetarians and vegans are more prone to have a deficiency, however vegetarians who eat eggs regularly are usually fine.
Folate (found in leafy greens) also plays a part in the body’s ability to create and use choline. The two nutrients have a strong relationship and rely on each other to do their jobs. The amount of folate (think foliage) you eat from your ‘greens’ etc may dictate how much choline your body makes, so someone who obtains more folate from foods like leafy green vegetables will need less choline from other types of food.
Forms DNA and cell structures
Choline works together with folate in the methylation processes which the body uses to create genetic material to help build every system in the body. Choline helps the body to absorb fat, which is then used to create cell membranes and structures. Without enough choline, our cells cannot hold their structure properly and signal messages to other parts of the body.
Supports healthy pregnancy
Pregnant women need more choline than anyone else because choline is used a lot by the developing baby in utero while their brains, cell structures and nerve channels are forming. Some studies show that when a foetus gets more choline, there is a greater chance of having healthy, sharp brain function and a lower risk of brain abnormalities.
Along with folate, pregnant women with a low blood level of choline have been shown to be at a higher risk to have children with neural tube defects and problems with natural development.
Choline is also found in breast milk because of its importance in a newborn’s growth and proper development, which is why it is added to most baby formulas. Choline plays a major role to help to build the foundation of the brain’s structure and the development of neuronal synapses of the unborn and infants.
Important for children’s growth and development
Choline is thought to be very important to support brain elasticity and plasticity. Neuron plasticity is the brain’s ability to build new neuronal connections as needed. Choline is needed for growing children to help them develop brain functions such as learning, remembering, concentration, logical thinking, and may help prevent learning disabilities such as ADHD if there are adequate levels in utero and infancy.
Children need to have adequate choline to be able to form neurotransmitter channels in their brain that help with information retention, verbal abilities, creative thinking, mathematical skills, social cues, and more.
Supports the central nervous system (CNS)
Choline is used by the body in a variety of ways that are crucial for nerve functioning, including nerve signalling and maintaining membranes of the brain cells. Choline also helps to form tissue within the nervous system that plays a role in brain development and growth. Choline can improve signalling capacity of nerves, support their structural integrity, and protect vital neuronal membranes.
Choline acts as a precursor to certain important neurotransmitters including acetylcholine which is used in nerve and muscle function. Acetylcholine plays a specific role in memory and learning, so a choline deficiency could result in poor memory, poor concentration, mood changes and other cognitive impairments, especially as we age.
Supports memory and prevents loss of brain function
As we age, our brain becomes less elastic, so choline maintains brain elasticity by keeping healthy levels of acetylcholine. Because choline is part of the makeup of our cell membranes and neurotransmitters used in nerve signalling, it can also help prevent memory loss and dementia, and other signs of cognitive decline, as we age.
Some studies suggest that low levels of acetylcholine may lead to cognitive decline, including Alzheimer’s disease and senile dementia.
Many who develop Alzheimer’s show very low levels of acetylcholine, and some medications used to treat Alzheimer’s mimic choline’s effect to increase this neurotransmitter.
Maintains Healthy Liver Function
Choline is partially responsible to keep the liver clear from fat build-up that can accumulate and cause harm. For those who have low levels of choline, they are more at risk of experiencing liver damage or even liver failure, because choline plays a role in transporting cholesterol and triglycerides from the liver to other parts of the body where they are needed – otherwise the cholesterol would build up in the liver.
Improves exercise performance and muscle function
Choline is required every time we move a muscle in the body. The neurotransmitter acetylcholine sends chemical signals to the muscles to make them move as needed. It is thought that choline affects our metabolism, as well as enabling quicker reaction times, cutting down the time needed for mental processing to create an action.
Choline also helps improve energy levels, mood, sleep cycles and recovery time following activity. Additionally, choline is used in muscle nerve function and may be useful in preventing fatigue and muscle aches or pains following exercise.
Supports heart health
Choline and folate assist in the conversion of homocysteine, which helps to prevent the risk of a heart attack or stroke. Homocysteine is an amino acid that enters the body from protein sources such as meat. High levels of homocysteine have been connected with the development of heart and blood vessel diseases.
Daily recommended intake of Choline
Our body can make a small amount of choline on its own (which is very clever) but we need more choline from food and perhaps supplements.
Choline is found naturally in foods like eggs, liver, beef, salmon, cauliflower, and Brussel sprouts. Eggs are sometimes referred to as ‘brain food’ because they contain good rich amounts of choline. Choline is also rich in breast milk to give the growing baby a healthy brain.
Choline was added to the Nation Academy of Science’s (NAS) nutrients list in 1998, making it one of the most recent additions of all nutrients. Choline is still being studied for its benefits and uses, but at this time in 2017, most experts agree that the daily amounts of choline listed below are sufficient to produce optimal benefits without causing any harm.
- Infants and babies: between 125 – 150 mg
- Children 1-8: between 150 – 250 mg
- Teens 8-13: between 250 – 375 mg
- Women 14+: between 425 – 550 mg
- Men 14+: need 550 mg
- Pregnant women: between 450-550 mg
- Women who are breastfeeding: need 550 mg
Choline can be found naturally in good levels in the following foods. By looking at the above daily recommended intakes you can estimate what would make up the daily requirement of choline for different ages, males, and females.
- Beef Liver: ½ cup = 283 mg
- Brussels Sprouts: 1 cup raw = 17 mg
- Cauliflower: 1 cup raw = 47 mg
- Chicken Breast: ½ cup = 50 mg
- Chickpeas: 1 cup uncooked = 198 mg
- Eggs: 1 large egg = 147 mg
- Grass-Fed Beef: ½ cup = 78 mg
- Navy Beans: 1 cup uncooked = 181 mg
- Salmon: 1 fillet = 242 mg
- Split Peas: 1 cup uncooked = 188 mg
- Turkey: ½ cup = 57 mg
Some practitioners may prescribe higher levels of choline to boost brain function and retain memory if your diet is low in choline rich foods (especially if you need to avoid certain choline rich foods such as eggs, because of an allergy).
For some people choline isn’t absorbed very well from food due to liver damage because choline is partially processed by the liver. This relates to how your body converts choline into the acetylcholine, which is responsible for many of choline’s health benefits.
What happens if you have too much Choline?
If you take excessive amounts of choline via supplementation, you may experience symptoms such as diarrhea, nausea, fatigue, higher blood pressure, excessive perspiration, and a fishy odour of the skin. Ensure you speak to your doctor or health practitioner before taking choline supplements, carefully read the recommended dosage, and stick to the recommendation unless your doctor recommends otherwise.
Before you commence your diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance about what foods and supplements are best for your body. While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.