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Fats are largely misunderstood and avoided in many diets. However, lecithin is a naturally occurring, healthy fat that can help you reach your health goals. Whether you want to improve your liver function or balance your cholesterol, lecithin will get the job done. Read on to discover what foods have lecithin, and its other great health benefits.
What Is Lecithin?
Lecithin is a term for a group of yellow-pigmented fatty substances. Lecithins generally contain groups of phospholipids, which are key structural and functional components of cell membranes in all animals and plants [R].
Lecithin maintains and stabilizes fat in many food products. They also provide texture to many foods and increase their shelf life. Lecithin has the ability to bind water and fat sources, making it a great additive to many desserts, chocolates, salad dressings, meats, and cooking oils [R, R, R].
Popular lecithins include soy lecithin and sunflower lecithin.
Soy lecithin is extracted from soybeans.
It is composed of free fatty acids and small amounts of proteins and carbohydrates. The main component in soy lecithin is phosphatidylcholine, which comprises between 20% to 80% of the total fat amount [R].
Active components in lecithin include [R]:
- Sodium oleate
Phosphatidylcholine, the main fat found in lecithin, is a source of choline, an important nutrient that is critical for 4 main purposes in the human body [R]:
- Cell membrane structure and signaling
- Synthesis of the important neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is required for brain and muscle function [R]
- Helps the process that controls the activation and blockage of genes (uses methyl groups to mark DNA)
- Fat transportation and keeping the fats circulating in your bloodstream in balance
Phosphatidylcholine and Choline Pathway:
Mechanism of Action
Lecithin contains fatty acids that can activate gene controlling receptors (peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors). Once activated, these receptors play a major role in energy balance and metabolic function [R, R].
Peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors exist in many types of tissues such as in the heart, liver, muscle, fat, and intestine. These tissues rely on receptor activation for the promotion of fatty acid, ketone bodies, and glucose metabolism. Ketone bodies are used by the body as a source of energy [R, R].
Health Benefits of Lecithin
1) Lecithin Improves Cholesterol Levels
Chronic high cholesterol leads to many heart-related complications such as heart attacks.
In one study (DB-PCT) of 30 patients, participants with high cholesterol levels took 500 mg of soy lecithin daily for 2 months. After 2 months, total cholesterol levels and bad (LDL) cholesterol levels were reduced by 42% and 56%, respectively [R].
Soy lecithin increased liver production of good (HDL) cholesterol in a 4-week study (RCT) of 65 patients. Good cholesterol removes other forms of cholesterol from the body, and higher levels protect against heart attack and stroke [R].
2) Lecithin May Protect the Brain
This same mixture also showed improved daily function, mood, and general condition in a different 2-month (DB-PCT) study of 56 Alzheimer’s patients [R].
Long-term use of drugs that treat mental disorders may cause tardive dyskinesia, an involuntary movement disorder. In a pilot study of 5 men with tardive dyskinesia, lecithin improved abnormal movements with oral supplements [R].
Choline in lecithin can also be used to increase the amount of acetylcholine, restoring defective pathways in the brain[R].
A meta-analysis also reported a moderate improvement on dementia after lecithin supplementation, but not enough to warrant further studies [R].
3) Lecithin May Treat Mental Disorders
In a study (DB-RCT) of 6 mania patients, 5 of them experienced better mental health with consumption of pure lecithin [R].
A 16-year-old Chinese boy with bipolar disorder, monthly insomnia, and a mild form of mania took phosphatidylcholine supplements for 14 months. His sleeping patterns returned to normal and his mania symptoms recovered [R].
A meta-analysis of lecithin reported its effectiveness as a complementary and alternative medicine in treating bipolar disorder [R].
4) Lecithin May Reduce Cancer Risk
Lecithin supplementation was also strongly associated with reduced breast cancer risk in postmenopausal women, but not premenopausal women [R].
5) Lecithin May Protect the Liver
Individuals with choline deficiency are more susceptible to liver damage and liver failure. Choline in lecithin is first broken down in the liver where it helps to absorb fats. Otherwise, the liver is at risk of becoming too fatty [R].
6) Lecithin May Boost Immunity
7) Lecithin Improves Stress Response
Lecithin can improve the body’s resilience to stress.
A study (RCT) of 80 men and women divided into 4 groups of 20 individuals. Before exposure to a stress test, participants were given either 400, 600, or 800 mg of soy lecithin plus phosphatidylserine (another phospholipid that is commonly present in lecithin) or placebo for 3 weeks [R].
Interestingly, only the 400 mg group showed a decreased stress response to the stress test compared to the placebo [R].
8) Lecithin May Treat Colitis
The lecithin derivative phosphatidylcholine makes up over 70% of the total fats found in the mucus layer covering the inner surface of the intestine. This layer serves as a protective barrier that helps maintain the digestive tract from bacteria [R].
Colitis is a chronic inflammatory bowel disease that targets the inner lining of the colon with inflammation. In colitis, there is a significant reduction in phosphatidylcholine content in the protective mucus barrier allowing bacteria to easily cause inflammation [R].
Supplementation of phosphatidylcholine in a study (DB-PCT) of 60 colitis was able to fix the mucus barrier and decrease inflammation caused by colitis [R].
9) Lecithin May Protect Against Bile Salt Injury
The liver produces bile. The gallbladder stores it to digest dietary fats such as cholesterol.
10) Lecithin Improves Absorption of Drugs and Supplements
Improving drug absorption is a double-edged sword and a highly researched area.
Some drugs and supplements can have improved effects if more is absorbed into the body. However, it could become toxic if the body cannot properly distribute, break down, and eliminate this larger amount of the drug [R].
Lecithin can help transport fat-soluble drugs and nutrients across fat insoluble cell membranes. For example, supplements such as curcumin, Boswellia serrata, green tea, silymarin, and grape seed extract have all shown enhanced absorption when delivered with lecithin [R, R].
Lecithin Side Effects
1) Lecithin May Cause Allergies
Since soy lecithin comes from soybean oil, it contains soy proteins that can trigger soy allergies. However, blood from soybean-sensitive patients showed no reaction to soy lecithin. Soy lecithin presents only a low risk for people with minor reactivity to soy [R].
Lecithin contains Immunoglobulin E (IgE) binding proteins. When these proteins bind to the immune system’s antibodies, the antibodies trigger an allergic response which can cause rapid inflammation and digestion discomfort. Those with a soy allergy should be cautious even with other lecithin based products [R, R].
2) Lecithin May Clot the Blood
A 15-day study (RCT) with 60 patients showed a daily dosage of soy lecithin increased blood cell clumping (platelet adhesion) in the blood. Blood platelets are responsible for sealing damaged blood vessels. However, increased activity of blood platelets is linked to heart disease [R, R].
3) Lecithin May Increase Infertility Risk in Men
4) Lecithin May Be Harmful During Pregnancy
After pregnant mice had a soy lecithin-supplemented diet, their offspring later showed behavioral and biological defects, causing laziness and poor balance [R].
The choline in lecithin can also be a minor cause for concern during pregnancy. When choline reaches the large intestine, gut bacteria and the liver converts it into trimethylamine oxide (TMAO). High levels of trimethylamine oxide may increase the risk of heart disease [R, R].
5) Lecithin May Cause Fat Build-up
Lecithin promoted fat production and storage in mouse cells. Human liver cells started to build up fat storage when introduced to lecithin [R].
Limitations and Caveats
Many of the available lecithin studies only test animals, so some benefits may not be replicated in humans. More human trials should be performed before you use lecithin for its purported health benefits.
There are no well-documented side effects or adverse reactions when taking lecithin.
However, lecithin was shown to increase platelet adhesion, which could reduce the effectiveness of blood thinners such as aspirin. Aspirin thins the blood by decreasing the clotting effect of platelets in the blood [R].
Lecithin is a common food additive but is also found in many natural sources.
- Egg (yolk)
- Brussels sprouts
- Vegetable oil
- Chicken liver
- Chicken kidney
- Beef Liver
The largest dose of lecithin used in a study ranged from 20 to 25 g/day [R].
Users report a mild headache relief provided by a daily use of lecithin. However, even large doses did not seem to have any effect on severe headaches and migraines.
Users also report that lecithin improved memory, focus, and joint movement while also reducing shakiness of hands.
When combined with moderate diet and exercise, many found lecithin’s powerful weight loss effects to be the most notable. However, there is only anecdotal evidence available.
Lecithin can prevent blocked ducts when breastfeeding. Its powerful emulsifying capabilities assist with the flow of highly fatty breast milk without causing clumps to form. Lecithin emulsifies by binding to both fat and water, preventing them from separating in a mixture. There are no available studies to verify this claim.
Buy Lecithin Supplements
Lecithin is also available in supplement form:
- Softgels (Amazon or iHerb)
- Powder (Amazon or iHerb)
- Granules (Amazon or iHerb)
- Sunflower Liquid (Amazon or iHerb)
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