Acetylcholine is a hot topic within the realm of memory enhancement. It is a neurotransmitter that is critical for the everyday functioning of the brain, particularly in the areas of movement, learning & memory, and sleep quality. Check out this post to learn how to promote balanced acetylcholine in your body and function at your very best.

What is Acetylcholine?

Acetylcholine is used by organisms in all domains of life for a variety of purposes. It is believed that choline, a precursor to acetylcholine, was used by single-celled organisms billions of years ago, for creating the cell layers [1].

Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that is used for many things: from stimulating muscles to memory and sleep.

Acetylcholine is synthesized from acetyl-CoA (which comes from glucose) and choline, with the help of the enzyme choline acetyltransferase [2].

Acetylcholine controls movements by causing muscle contractions [3]. Acetylcholine and histamine interact together to contract muscles in the lungs [4].

In the brain, it is involved in memory and attention [5, 6], and promotes the phase of sleep associated with dreaming (REM sleep) [7].

Benefits of Acetylcholine

1) Helps Memory

Too little acetylcholine in the memory center of the brain (hippocampus) has been associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s [5].

Scopolamine, a drug that blocks acetylcholine, impairs acquisition of new information in humans and animals [8, 9].

In monkeys, disruption of the supply of acetylcholine to the brain (neocortex, hippocampus) impairs the acquisition of factual information (discrimination learning) and also produces forgetting comparable to amnesia in humans [10, 11].

In 1391 people, higher choline intake was related to better cognitive performance (verbal and visual memory) [12].

There is a link between acetylcholine and Alzheimer’s disease. It is estimated that there is a 90% loss of acetylcholine in the brains of people who suffer from Alzheimer’s. Therefore, drugs that increase acetylcholine are commonly used to help treat Alzheimer’s [13, 14].

Acetylcholine may enhance memory by helping encoding new memories and increasing the modification of synapses [15].

In 24 male, choline supplementation (500 – 1,000mg, CDP choline) improved a variety of cognitive processes (including working memory and verbal memory), but only in low cognitive baseline performers (i.e. less intelligent people). CDP choline works in part by increasing acetylcholine [16].

2) May Improve Attention and Alertness

Historically, acetylcholine has been thought to mainly be important in learning and short-term memory functions. However, more recent studies have provided support for acetylcholine’s role in attention [17].

In rats, acetylcholine helped improve attention and task performance [6].

Sixty healthy adult women aged 40 – 60 who took choline supplements (CDP-choline) for 28 days had improved attention [18].

Acetylcholine is also important for the enhancement of alertness when we wake up [7].

3) Helps Lower Inflammation

Acetylcholine has such a significant influence on decreasing inflammation that it has a pathway named after it: “The cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway” [19].

Inflammatory cytokines are produced by cells of the immune system during injury and infection. These contribute to initiating a cascade of effects which recruit inflammatory cells to the site of infection in order to contain it.

The cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway provides a braking effect on the immune response, which protects the body against the damage that can occur if a localized inflammatory response spreads beyond the local tissues, which results in toxicity or damage to the kidney, liver, lungs, and other organs [20].

Activation of the vagus nerve exerts its anti-inflammatory action via acetylcholine [19].

Decreased vagus nerve activity occurs in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) as a result of less anti-inflammatory activity by acetylcholine activation [19].

In animals, increased acetylcholine reduced gut mucosal inflammation (MHC II level and pro-inflammatory cytokines via α7nAChR) [19].

Acetylcholine has been shown to reduce IL-6, IL1B, TNF-a and other pro-inflammatory cytokines in different inflammatory conditions, including IBD [19].

Acetylcholine receptors (α7nAChR) are found on various immune cells (macrophages, monocytes and mast cells), and reduce inflammation by inhibiting their activation [19].

However, acetylcholine (via nAChR) also suppresses the production of anti-inflammatory cytokine (IL-10).

4) Improves Wakefulness

Acetylcholine release is increased during wakefulness and it is one of the main neurotransmitters responsible for wakefulness, in addition to orexin, histamine, norepinephrine, and dopamine  [217].

In rats, sedative and hypnotics (zolpidem, diazepam, and eszopiclone) alter acetylcholine release [21].

5) Helps You Sleep Better

Acetylcholine promotes REM sleep, which helps memory storage and for the brain to rest [22].

6) Helps Gut Movement

Nicotine (via nicotinic acetylcholine receptors) helps gut flow.

This is why when 1 in 6 people stop smoking, they get constipation [23].

Also, antidepressant drugs are able to inhibit this acetylcholine receptor commonly causes constipation as a side effect [24].

The part of the nervous system responsible for ‘rest and digest’ (parasympathetic) uses acetylcholine to cause these effects [25].

7) Helps Pain Reduction

Directly activating choline receptors or increasing acetylcholine reduces pain in rodents and humans, while blocking choline (muscarinic) receptors increases pain sensitivity [26].

Higher levels of acetylcholine in the spinal cord cause pain relief, whereas decreasing acetylcholine levels or activity (via receptor blockade) pain sensitivity [26].

Donepezil, a drug that increases acetylcholine, produces a dose-dependent pain relieving effect in humans and is also effective as a preventative treatment for migraines [27].

Activating the nicotinic receptors also exerts anti-pain effects in animal models of acute as well as chronic pain states [28].

8) Protects Against Infections

Acetylcholine can modulate inflammatory responses. Acetylcholine was shown to have the ability to inhibit biofilm formation during fungal infections (Candida albicans) in an animal model of infection [29].

9) Improves Blood Flow

Acetylcholine in the blood increases the production of nitric oxide in the blood vessels (via muscarinic receptors), leading to improved blood circulation (vasodilation) [30].

10) Acetylcholine and Hormones

Acetylcholine affects pituitary hormone secretion by acting on the hypothalamus. It causes prolactin and growth hormone to secrete from pituitary glands [31, 32].

Negative Effects of Acetylcholine


The association between smoking and depression has been reported in many studies [33].

In chronic smokers, acetylcholine (nicotinic) receptors are increased, rather than decreased, as is often the case with chronic substance use. It could be the increase in these receptors which contribute to the association of depression and smoking [33].

Based on animal models, too much activation of certain acetylcholine receptors (nicotinic receptors -alpha4beta2 or alpha7) may contribute to depression [34, 35].

How to Increase Acetylcholine

Supplements for Acetylcholine Deficiency

In order to increase your body’s levels of acetylcholine, you should increase choline levels. Choline can be found in a variety of sources [37].

When it comes to the herbs listed, they increase acetylcholine by inhibiting the enzyme that breaks them down – acetylcholinesterase. Most common herbs have some inhibitory activity against the enzyme.

Stronger Supplements:

Weaker Supplements:

Decreasing Acetylcholine

A lot of drugs can inhibit acetylcholine, either by imitating it or inhibiting choline [72].

See anticholinergics



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