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Lecithin - what it is and what it does

2 min read

What is it? 

Lecithin is a phospholipid - a specialised fat molecule comprising of a complex mixture of glycolipids, sterols, triglycerides, carbohydrates and fatty acids.

What is its role in the body? 

It is needed by every living cell in the human body – specifically for building cell membranes that control the passage of nutrients into and out of the cells. It also protects cells’ interior structures - without lecithin the membranes in our body would harden and our cells would die.

Where does it come from? 

It is a naturally occurring substance found in liver and other organ meats, muscle meat, egg yolks, as well as plant foods, particularly soybeans. It is also found in peanuts, cabbage, wheat germ, and brewer's yeast. Lecithin is also added to ice cream, mayonnaise, margarine, salad dressings, and many other processed foods to prevent fats and fluids from separating.

How can it benefit my health? 

The liver synthesizes lecithin from food and disperses it throughout the body's circulatory system to protect cells from destruction by oxidation and helps strengthen cellular structures.

It is partly soluble so acts as an emulsifying agent, a substance that helps fats mix with water and other bodily fluids so that they can be removed from the body. As such it may reduce the formation of deposits on vital organs and artery walls, helping lower cholesterol and prevent atherosclerosis - ultimately reducing the risk of heart disease. A 10-week study in 2003 involving 45 participants found that fat-free soy lecithin lowered cholesterol absorption by as much as 38% and reduced LDL (bad cholesterol) by 14%. The results, published in the "Journal of the American Dietetic Association," concluded that powdered lecithin lowers LDL cholesterol and cholesterol absorption when consumed with fat-free foods.

The constituent of lecithin studied for its health-enhancing benefits is choline - a precursor to acetylcholine which is a neurotransmitter important for memory, learning and sleep. Once in the body phosphatidylcholine in lecithin breaks down into choline, choline is then used to make acetylcholine which is a neurotransmitter that is necessary to transmit impulses along nerve pathways.    

There has been good clinical data to support the use of phosphatidylcholine for liver disorders such as toxic liver damage, drug-induced liver damage, diabetic fatty liver, cirrhosis of the liver, chronic hepatitis, alcohol-induced fatty liver and acute viral hepatitis. In Germany phosphatidylcholine is marketed as part of a treatment plan for these liver disorders and its use in clinical applications in this context has received proper authorization from the BGA, the German equivalent of the FDA. 

Should I take it as a supplement? 

Some of the best dietary sources of lecithin are animal fats and organ meats, so it’s possible that you may not be consuming too many of these types of foods - maybe due to their association with conditions such as heart disease, or just due to dietary choice. If this is the case for you then a lecithin supplement might be a wise choice to compensate for any shortfall.

A healthy balanced diet is the best way to consume all the nutrients we need. Sometimes however this isn't possible and then supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying any supplements or herbal medicines.