If you haven't heard, choline is the new cool kid in town. Okay, maybe not that cool, but it's definitely got some great benefits for your health. Unfortunately, a lot of people aren't getting enough of it in their diets – possibly because they've never heard of it! In this article, we're going to explore what choline is and what happens when you don't get enough.
What Is Choline?
Okay, so let's start at the beginning – what the heck even is choline? Basically, it's a B-vitamin-like nutrient that your body needs to function properly. It helps with things like cell structure and metabolism. You can find choline naturally in foods like eggs (yolks specifically), liver, salmon (wild caught only!), chicken breast…you know, all those delicious high-fat animal products that everyone told you were bad for you? Turns out they're actually pretty darn good for ya!
Fun fact alert: Did you know that up until 1998 nobody even knew how much choline humans needed to consume each day? Pretty wild stuff!
So now we know where to find choline in our food…but why do we need it anyway? Well…
Why Do We Need Choline?
Ah yes…why do we need yet another nutrient to worry about? Honestly though – there are a lot of super important reasons why your body needs choline:
- Liver function: Without enough choline in your diet, your liver won't be able to process fat effectively – which can lead to fatty liver disease.
- Brain development: Pregnant women especially need adequate levels of choline for fetal brain development.
- Cognitive function/memory: Studies have shown that having more choline in your diet can help improve memory and cognitive function as you age.
- Cardiovascular health: Choline helps regulate homocysteine levels in the blood, which can help reduce your risk of heart disease.
Those are just a few examples! Needless to say, choline is pretty dang important.
What Happens When You Don't Get Enough?
So we've established that choline is great and all…but what if you don't get enough? Well folks, it ain't good news. Here are some potential consequences of a choline deficiency:
Increased Risk of Liver Disease
Remember how we talked about how important choline is for liver function? Yeah…well without enough of it, your liver won't be able to process fat effectively – leading to (you guessed it) fatty liver disease. Not only can this cause fatigue and abdominal discomfort, but over time it can even lead to more serious conditions like cirrhosis or liver failure.
Memory Impairment & Cognitive Decline
We mentioned earlier that having adequate levels of choline in your diet can actually improve memory and cognitive function…but the opposite is also true. If you're not getting enough choline, studies have shown that you may experience memory impairment and overall cognitive decline as you age.
Increased Risk of Heart Disease
As we briefly touched on earlier, choline helps regulate homocysteine levels in the blood – which plays a big role in cardiovascular health. A lack of choline could mean higher homocysteine levels…and thus an increased risk for heart disease down the line.
Muscle Damage & Weakness
Chalk another one up for "reasons why your body needs lotsa different nutrients" – because muscle damage/weakness are yet another potential consequence of not getting enough dietary choline. This happens because less available phosphatidylcholines (a type of compound made from...you guessed it....chonline) leads to cellular instability – ultimately resulting in muscle cell damage.
Lastly, as we mentioned earlier - pregnant women especially need to ensure they're getting enough choline in their diets. A lack of this nutrient during pregnancy can result in some pretty scary things like neural tube defects and megaloblastic anemia.
How Much Choline Do You Need?
So now that you're probably a little freaked out about the potential consequences of not getting enough choline…let's talk about how much ya actually need! Exactly how much you should aim for depends on your age and sex, but here are a few general recommendations from the National Institutes of Health:
- Adult females: 425 milligrams per day
- Adult males: 550 milligrams per day
- Pregnant women (over 18): 450 milligrams per day
- Breastfeeding (over 18): 550 milligrams per day
Now keep in mind these are all just rough estimates...your individual needs may vary depending on other factors. But it's definitely good to have a ballpark idea!
And remember what we said before...for most people, dietary sources of choline will be more than adequate to meet these needs.
The Bottom Line
Okay okay…there was probably some slightly-scary stuff back there about liver disease and heart disease and fetal abnormalities…but don't worry too much! While it's important to pay attention to your nutrient intake overall, most people are able to get plenty of choline by incorporating things like eggs, liver, salmon etc into their diets every once in awhile. Plus hey – if you're looking for an excuse to finally go try out those fancy brunch spots everyone keeps raving about…it turns out they might ACTUALLY be doing wonders for your cognitive function. Who knew?