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 naturally occurring fat found in many plant and animal sources [1, 2].

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 [3].

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 [4, 5, 6].

Popular lecithins include soy lecithin and sunflower lecithin.

Soy 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 [7].

Components

Active components in lecithin include [8]:

  • Glycerophosphate
  • Sodium oleate
  • Choline
  • Phosphatidylinositol

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 [9]:

  • Cell membrane structure and signaling
  • Synthesis of the important neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is required for brain and muscle function [10]
  • 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

Choline is also very important in breaking down homocysteine [10].

Phosphatidylcholine and the Choline Pathway

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18204095

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 [11, 12].

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 [13, 14].

Natural Lecithin Sources

Lecithin is a common food additive but is also found in many natural sources.

Some vegetarian sources include [15, 16, 17]:

  • Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Cheese
  • Egg (yolk)
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Broccoli
  • Legumes
  • Soybeans
  • Vegetable oil
  • Cauliflower
  • Nuts

Most animal sources generally provide a larger source of lecithin and choline. Some animal sources include [15, 16, 17]:

  • Fish
  • Chicken liver
  • Chicken kidney
  • Pork
  • Beef Liver

Health Benefits of Lecithin

1) Improves Cholesterol Levels

Chronic high cholesterol leads to many heart-related complications such as heart attacks.

In one study 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 [18].

Soy lecithin increased liver production of good (HDL) cholesterol in a 4-week study of 65 patients. Good cholesterol removes other forms of cholesterol from the body, and higher levels protect against heart attack and stroke [19].

2) May Protect the Brain

Phosphatidylserine (from soy lecithin) blended with phosphatidic acid improved memory, mood, and thinking ability in a 3-month study of 72 elderly patients [20].

This same mixture also showed improved daily function, mood, and general condition in a different 2-month study of 56 Alzheimer’s patients [20].

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 [21].

Choline in lecithin can also be used to increase the amount of acetylcholine, restoring defective pathways in the brain [22].

However, in a study of 51 subjects, using high doses of lecithin did not improve symptoms in dementia patients [23].

A meta-analysis also reported a moderate improvement on dementia after lecithin supplementation, but not enough to warrant further studies [24].

3) May Treat Mental Disorders

Lecithin also contains another phospholipid called phosphatidylinositol, a natural compound that is effective in treating panic disorder [25].

In a study of 6 mania patients, 5 of them experienced better mental health with consumption of pure lecithin [26].

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 [27].

A meta-analysis of lecithin reported its effectiveness as complementary and alternative medicine in treating bipolar disorder [28].

4) May Reduce Cancer Risk

In another study, researchers compared 3,101 previous breast cancer cases to 3,471 healthy subjects. Use of lecithin supplements was associated with reduced breast cancer risk [29].

Lecithin supplementation was also strongly associated with reduced breast cancer risk in postmenopausal women, but not premenopausal women [29].

5) May Protect the Liver

Cholestatic liver disease is the slowing of bile flow due to damaged or inflamed bile ducts. Mice experienced less liver damage when on soybean lecithin supplemented diet [30].

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 [31].

6) May Boost Immunity

In one study, diabetic rats given a daily supplement of soy lecithin had a 29% increase in white blood cell activity [32].

Meanwhile, non-diabetic rats had a 92% increase in overall white blood cells (T and B cells) [32].

7) Improves Stress Response

Lecithin can improve the body’s resilience to stress.

A study 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 [33].

Interestingly, only the 400 mg group showed a decreased stress response to the stress test compared to the placebo [33].

8) 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 [34].

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 [34].

Supplementation of phosphatidylcholine in a study of 60 colitis was able to fix the mucus barrier and decrease inflammation caused by colitis [35].

9) May Protect Against Bile Salt Injury

The liver produces bile. The gallbladder stores it to digest dietary fats such as cholesterol.

When bile levels are too high, bile salts can damage cells by digesting their fatty cell membrane. Lecithin can bind to and reduce bile salt levels, protecting cells from harm [36, 37].

10) 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 [38].

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 [39, 40].

Side Effects & Precautions

1) 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 [41].

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 [42, 43].

2) May Clot the Blood

A 15-day study 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 [44, 45].

3) May Increase Infertility Risk in Men

Soy products, including soy lecithin, contain the plant hormone phytoestrogen, which acts like the human hormone, estrogen [46].

Researchers took pregnant rats with male fetuses and added phytoestrogens to their diet. Later in their development, the male rats had a lower sperm count and hormone imbalances [47, 48].

4) 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 [11].

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 [49].

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 [50, 51].

Drug Interactions

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 [44].

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.

Supplementation

Dosage

There is no established recommended dosage for lecithin supplements. The most common dosages used in studies range from 0.5 to 2 g/ day [18, 52, 53].

The largest dose of lecithin used in a study ranged from 20 to 25 g/day [23].

User Experiences

Lecithin can treat a variety of ailments as a natural supplement with some reported side effects. The reported side effects include nausea, stomach pain, diarrhea, and dizziness.

Users report a mild headache relief provided by 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.

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