Lecithin describes a group of fatty substances found in plant and animal tissues. Lecithin is essential for proper biological function.
A commercial form of lecithin is commonly used in the preparation of food, cosmetics, and medications, as it extends shelf life and acts as an emulsifier.
Lecithin supplements can also be used to treat high cholesterol and digestive issues, and to prevent clogged milk ducts, during breast-feeding.
One of the main components of lecithin, phosphatidylcholine (PC), may be responsible for some of lecithin’s reported health benefits.
Although lecithin occurs naturally in many foods, lecithin supplements are typically derived from eggs, soy, or sunflower seeds. Lecithin is also obtained from canola, cottonseed, or animal fats.
Soy is one of the most widely-grown crops in the United States, and 94 percent of it is genetically modified. Soy is a cost-effective source of lecithin. Chemicals, including acetone and hexane, are used to extract the lecithin from soybean oil.
However, lecithin derived from sunflower oil is becoming increasingly popular, possibly due to requirements to declare allergens in foods. Also, those who wish to avoid genetically modified crops may choose sunflower lecithin. The extraction process is typically gentler and is carried out by cold pressing rather than with chemical solvents.
The most commonly cited lecithin benefits include:
Research indicates that a diet rich in lecithin may increase good HDL cholesterol and lower bad LDL cholesterol.
Lecithin supplements have also shown promise in lowering cholesterol. In a 2008 study, participants took 500 milligrams (mg) of soy lecithin a day. After 2 months, the average total cholesterol was reduced by 42 percent, and LDL cholesterol was reduced by 56.15 percent.
Improved immune function
Supplementing with soy lecithin may increase immune function, particularly in people with diabetes.
A Brazilian study on rats found that daily lecithin supplementation increased macrophage activity by 29 percent. Macrophages are white blood cells that engulf debris, microbes, cancerous cells, and other foreign materials in the body.
Also, the number of natural killer cells called lymphocytes, which are vital to the immune system, increased by 92 percent in non-diabetic rats. Further research is needed now on humans, to confirm these findings.
Ulcerative colitis is a form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that affects up to 907,000 people in the U.S. Lecithin may help to reduce digestive distress in those with the condition.
Research suggests that the emulsifying activity of lecithin improves mucus in the intestine, protecting the gastrointestinal lining. This may be because lecithin contains phosphatidylcholine (PC), which is also a component of mucus.
People with ulcerative colitis have 70 percent less PC than people with other forms of IBD or those without the disease.
Although research is lacking, anecdotal evidence suggests that people with digestive distress caused by issues other than ulcerative colitis may also benefit from lecithin use.
Enhanced cognitive function
Choline, a component of phosphatidylcholine, plays a role in brain development and may improve memory.
Infant rats who received choline supplements experienced lifelong memory enhancement due to changes in the memory center of their brains.
The brain changes were so noticeable that researchers could identify the animals that had taken supplemental choline, even when the rats were elderly.
As a breastfeeding aid
Some women who breastfeed may experience clogged milk ducts, where the breast milk does not flow correctly through the duct. This condition is painful and makes breast-feeding more difficult.
It can also lead to the development of mastitis, an infection of the breast tissue that affects approximately 10 percent of American women who are breast-feeding.
To help prevent mastitis and difficulty nursing, the Canadian Breastfeeding Foundation recommend that people who experience recurrent blocked milk ducts take 1,200 mg of lecithin four times a day as a preventative measure.
Lecithin does not, however, work as a treatment for those who already have clogged ducts.
Lecithin has been promoted as a treatment for:
It should be noted that the research on lecithin’s effectiveness in treating these conditions is very limited or nonexistent.
Lecithin is “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). When taken in reasonable amounts, it is unlikely to cause adverse reactions.
It is best to get lecithin through food. Supplements are not monitored by the FDA for safety or purity. People should research the supplements and the brand names before taking them. If someone has high cholesterol or a history of heart disease, they should discuss the supplement with their doctor.
If adverse reactions do occur, they can include:
- stomach pain
- increased saliva in the mouth
- feeling of fullness
While the Canadian Breastfeeding Foundation recommend lecithin for women who are breast-feeding, there needs to be more research on lecithin supplementation, during pregnancy and lactation.
Finally, some recent research indicates that phosphatidylcholine found in lecithin is converted by bacteria in the gut into trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO). Over time, TMAO may contribute to hardening of the arteries or atherosclerosis and heart attack.
There is no recommended dosage for lecithin. As a general rule, dosage should not exceed 5,000 mg daily.
It is advisable to choose lecithin from food sources before considering supplement form. Lecithin is found in many whole foods, including:
- organ meats
- red meat
- cooked green vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts and broccoli
- legumes, such as soybeans, kidney beans, and black beans
Naturally occurring lecithin from food sources does not pose any health risks.