Our liver can make a small amount of choline (if the methylation cycle is properly functioning), but the majority of our needs must be met through diet.
What does it do?
Choline has a very wide variety of functions. This includes:
Cell health: Choline is a major component of two phospholipids, phosphatidylcholine, and sphingomyelin, which make up the cell membrane. This not only helps to protect the cell from damage, but also allows the cell to function optimally. Aside from forming the cell structure, these phospholipids are precursors for intracellular messenger molecules that allow cells to communicate effectively.
Nervous system: Choline is a precursor for a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which is important for both automatic (involuntary) and somatic (voluntary) nervous system functions. This includes digestion, gut motility, circadian rhythm, muscle control, REM sleep, and memory.
DNA synthesis: Choline is required in the methylation process, as it acts as a methyl donor. Methylation helps our body to create and repair DNA, regulate histamine, and give energy to the cells. Low folate levels will also increase the need for choline in the body, so it is especially important for pregnant women to be getting enough of this nutrient.
Metabolism: Choline helps to move fat and cholesterol out of the liver for our body to utilize for energy and to absorb fat-soluble nutrients. In the absence of choline, fat will stay in the liver and accumulate to the point of fatty liver disease.
What are symptoms of deficiencies?
Choline deficiency is quite common due to vegan and vegetarian diets, and also due to junk food that has no substantive nutrients.
Symptoms of deficiency:
- brain fog
- low energy and fatigue
- muscle twitching and damage
- non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
- neurological issues such as memory loss and cognitive decline (dementia and Alzheimer's)
- nerve damage
While everyone needs choline, some groups may have greater needs and run a higher risk of being deficient.
- pregnant women: choline is transferred to the baby during pregnancy, so the need is increased. Breastmilk is also very rich in choline, so breastfeeding women will need more of it. Choline can reduce pregnancy complications and cystic fibrosis symptoms.
- vegans and vegetarians: the best sources of choline are animal sources, so those who cut animal products out of their diet are at high risk for deficiency
- Postmenopausal women: lower estrogen levels require higher choline intake to reduce the risk of choline-deficiency induced liver and muscle damage
Adding choline to your diet is pretty simple if you're already eating quality, nourishing foods.
Food rich in choline include:
- farm fresh egg yolks
- beef and beef liver
- shiitake mushrooms
Choline is such an important nutrient and yet it’s easy to be deficient if you’ve cut animal-based foods out of your diet. I personally had a lot of brain fog issues that my vegan diet exacerbated. Adding eggs and pastured liver to my diet was one of the best things I ever did for my health.
The richest sources of choline are egg yolks, beef liver, and fish. Farm-fresh eggs will have a higher concentration of choline and other nutrients, so check your farmers market (or neighbors) to see what’s available near you.
Eating balanced, nutrient dense foods is the easiest way to make sure we’re getting all of our essential nutrients without much thought. Cutting out an entire food group usually does more harm than good.