Cholesterol is a naturally produced, fatlike substance found in cell walls. The lipoproteins HDL and LD typically transport it through the body. Small amounts of cholesterol are needed for the body to function properly, but high levels of cholesterol can increase the risks of heart disease and stroke. For many years it has been thought that lecithin, a lipid found in the cell walls, can lower blood cholesterol. However, there is little evidence to support this claim.
Transported through the bloodstream via HDL, high-density lipoproteins, and LDL, low-density lipoproteins, the body uses cholesterol to produce hormones, bile acids and vitamin D. LDL is often referred to as bad cholesterol because it is responsible for transporting cholesterol to the body's cells and tissues. If too much cholesterol accumulates in the body, it creates plaque deposits that can lead to atherosclerosis. HDL, however, is considered good cholesterol because it transports cholesterol to liver to be filtered out of the body. It is generally desirable to have low levels of LDL and high levels of HDL.
Lecithin is an essential nutrient the body synthesizes from food. Chemically, lecithin is a phosphatidylcholine, a phospholipid that plays a key role in the formation of cell membranes and myelin sheaths in the human brain. Without lecithin, cell structure could harden and collapse. Lecithin transport fats, is used in metabolic processes, and acts as an emulsifier, protecting the cells from oxidation. Although, research by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has found little evidence that lecithin affects cholesterol levels or heart health, it may be beneficial for liver disease or neurological conditions, such as Tourette's syndrome, Alzheimer's disease and bipolar disorder.
Lecithin and Choline
Lecithin is a fatty acid chain that is built from the base structure of choline and phosphate group called the L-alpha-glycerophosphorylcholine skeleton. Lecithin is typically made up of between 10 to 20 percent phosphatidylcholine, the nutrient thought to be responsible for lecithin's presumed medical benefits. When phosphatidylcholine is consumed, it is broken down into the nutrient choline. Choline promotes methylation and is used to make acetylcholine, a chemical essential for proper brain function.
Sources of Lecithin
Although first discovered in egg yolk, lecithin can also be found in many high fat foods, soybeans, wheat germ, peanuts and liver. Generally, a healthy, well-balanced diet will meet lecithin's daily recommended value of 3.5 grams. Higher dosages of lecithin, however, may be taken if it has been prescribed to treat psychological and neurological conditions or liver disease. Lecithin is also available as an over-the-counter dietary supplement. Most commercial lecithin products are made from soybeans and contain up to 90 percent of the polar lipid phophatidylcholine.
Given how little evidence supports the claim that lecithin can lower cholesterol, the most reliable way to lower cholesterol levels is still diet and exercise. Creating a healthy, well-balanced diet that is rich in whole grains, fiber, low-fat protein, unsaturated fats, fruits and vegetables is the first step to lowering cholesterol. Limit foods that contain cholesterol and saturated fat -- such as red meats, whole dairy products and butter -- and processed foods, which contain trans fat. Exercise is also important for lowering cholesterol. Staying physically fit can help shed unwanted weight and regulate cholesterol levels.
Is This an Emergency?
- National Heart Lung and Blood Institute: Your Guide to Lowering Cholesterol with TLC
- University of Pittsburgh Medical Center: Lecithin
- The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences: Lecithin
- Food-Info.net: What is Lecithin?
- The Journal of Nutrition: Cholesterol Intake Is Associated with Lecithin Intake in Japanese People
- University of Michigan Healthcare system: High Cholesterol