Choline is an essential nutrient that’s found in egg yolks, dairy products, proteins such as beef, and a few vegetables. It is critical to fetal development, and plays a role in liver health, cell development, and neurology.
There isn’t a recommended daily requirement (RDA) established for choline, though it is an essential micronutrient. It isn’t classified as a vitamin, and it isn’t a mineral. Also, individual needs vary based on gender, life stage, and unique conditions. But the National Academy of Sciences has established adequate intake (AI) guidelines. Generally, men should get about 500 mg of choline per day, and women should get 425 mg.
The best way for your body to access choline is through your diet. Eggs, proteins such as beef, poultry and fish, broccoli, cauliflower, calves’ liver, and lecithin (the fat found in eggs and soy products) are all good sources of choline.
Most people in the developed world get enough choline. Eggs are the most common source of choline, so if you don’t eat eggs, you might not be getting enough. For example, if you have a vegan or strict vegetarian diet, you’ll need to eat soy products like tofu, or beans to get enough choline.
You can also find it in supplement form or in some vitamin supplements. You might see it sold as choline bitartrate, which is a combination of choline and a salt. Bitartrate makes choline easier to put into pill or capsule form.
Choline plays a critical role in the healthy functioning of the liver, brain, and nervous system. It is vital to the development of central nervous system tissues in early brain growth. Choline, as the precursor to acetylcholine, helps neurotransmitters function so that your nerves and muscles can work together properly, and it also supports memory. It helps with liver metabolism, and aids in the removal of triglycerides from the liver. In fact, one of the signs of insufficient choline is fatty liver.
When a woman is pregnant, her body and the developing fetus need a lot of choline. That’s because of choline’s role in building nerve cells and in the complex job of constructing the human brain. Fetuses are in danger of developing neural tube defects (NTDs) if there’s a lack of choline.
Although dementia and Alzheimer’s disease have no single determinant cause, some research indicates that choline plays a role in improving memory. For that reason, choline supplements are often marketed for this purpose. There is no indication that taking choline will improve Alzheimer’s or dementia symptoms, however.
A decade-long study found that adding choline to the diet of people who didn’t have dementia yet meaningfully improved verbal and visual memory. More studies are needed to understand how choline helps memory and if it can someday be used to fight Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Although choline clearly has some connection to memory and the brain, it is not entirely clear that insufficient choline causes brain or memory problems. One of the clearest indicators of not getting enough choline is liver damage, specifically nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. That is a condition in which triglycerides have not been flushed out of the liver. Several tests show that removing choline from the diet causes liver damage, and that adding it back often restores the liver to health.
Most people do get enough choline from food. If you are suffering from fatty liver, consult with your doctor about whether low levels of choline might be the cause. If you are suffering from memory problems, assess your diet to see if you’re eating enough healthy choline sources. If you think you might want to take supplemental choline, check with your doctor first.