"Nature's Emulsifier" First isolated by French chemist Theodore Gobley in 1846, lecithin is a generic term to designate a variety of naturally occurring fatty compounds found in animal and plant tissues, which are extracted during the processing of oil. It is composed of choline, fatty acids, glycerol, glycolipids, phospholipids, phosphoric acid and triglycerides. Lecithin was originally isolated from egg yolk, hence the name "lekithos," the Greek term for such. Part of the controversy surrounding eggs and cholesterol revolves around the lecithin content of the egg yolk. Since egg yolks are an excellent source of lecithin they are considered beneficial in reducing cholesterol ONLY if the cooking method preserves the lecithin content. Cooking at high temperatures denatures or destroys the lecithin. This means that any form of cooking that results in runny yolks preserves the lecithin and makes the egg beneficial in reducing cholesterol. Egg yolks cooked solid do not have the same benefit. Today, lecithin is regularly extracted from cottonseed, marine sources, milk, rapeseed, soybeans, and sunflower, with soybean being the most popular.
Soybeans are tempered by keeping them at a consistent temperature and moisture level for approximately 7 to 10 days. This process hydrates the soybeans and loosens the hull. They are then cleaned and cracked into small pieces and the hulls are separated from the cracked beans. Next, the pieces are heated and pressed into flakes. Soybean oil is extracted from the flakes through a distillation process and lecithin is separated from the oil by the addition of water and centrifugation or steam precipitation.
Soy lecithin offers a multifunctional, flexible and versatile tool. It is probably best known for its emulsifying properties, which help promote solidity in margarine and give consistent texture to dressings and other creamy products. Lecithin is also used in chocolates and coatings and to counteract spattering during frying. Additionally, its unique lipid molecular structure makes lecithin useful for pharmaceutical and cosmetic applications and various industrial uses such as paints, textiles, lubricants and waxes.
There are multiple ways you can supplement with lecithin. Many people take lecithin capsules. This can be fairly easy and offers a way to avoid the unpleasant taste of liquid lecithin. However, in order to achieve 1 to 3 tablespoons of lecithin, you would have to take 8 to 12 capsules each day. Lecithin capsules can be more expensive and this is a lot of capsules to take every day. Liquid lecithin is less costly, but the taste can be unpleasant. Lecithin oil has been known to aggravate complexion problems. One of the easiest ways to get a good supply of lecithin each day is to take lecithin granules. You can sprinkle the granules in any cold food or drink. They do not taste bad in ice cream, yogurt, milk, or water. They do not dissolve, but are easily swallowed. Do not use lecithin granules in hot food as they will melt and become liquid lecithin. Be sure to keep the lecithin refrigerated once you have opened the container to keep it from becoming rancid. Lecithin should have a sweet, grainy odor when it is fresh. If it smells sour, it is not fresh.
Every cell in your body depends on lecithin for its structure and function. Essential fatty acids are the “bricks” that make up a cell membrane. Phosphates like choline are the mortar that holds the bricks together.
Fats and oils are an essential part of the diet, yet they must function within the watery environment of the body. Although oil and water do not mix, a lecithin molecule can hold them together. One end of the molecule (containing fatty acids) is attracted to the oil, and the other (containing phosphorous and nitrogen) is attracted to the water. Thus, lecithin acts as a bridge between water and oil. It has the ability to keep fat-like cholesterol particles in solution while they journey through the arteries so they are unable to settle out and form dangerous deposits on the walls of the blood vessels. This unique emulsification property of lecithin is critical in the body’s ability to utilize the fat soluble vitamins A, D, K, and E. Adding lecithin to your diet could help with utilization of any and all of these essential vitamins.
Benefits of lecithin for specific health conditions include the following:
Lecithin acts like motor oil for your nervous system, keeping everything firing away smoothly and efficiently, by helping the body digest and utilize the fats and oils that are critical in maintaining efficient brain and nerve function. Lecithin makes up the majority of the protective sheaths surrounding the brain and nervous system. In fact, your brain if dried and analyzed, would show a composition of about 30% lecithin. Choline is one of the key ingredients (10-20%) in lecithin. Choline easily crosses the blood brain barrier and is then used in our brain to manufacture the important neurotransmitter acetylcholine; which is involved in muscle control & motor coordination, memory, sensory feedback, sleep patterns and feelings of relaxation. Perhaps the greatest recent discovery is the use of lecithin to activate a sluggish mind and improve memory function, concentration abilities, and learning capacity, by providing the body with the ingredients necessary to produce this vital neurotransmitter. This action has been found to have great potential in helping to treat or diminish the effects of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. In one study involving rats, mothers given extra choline produced offspring with memory and learning skills superior to the offspring of those rats on a regular diet. And the offspring of mothers whose diet was deficient in choline performed poorly on memory tests.
Lecithin protects and repairs nerves. Because lecithin nourishes the fatty sheath covering the nerve fibers, it was found to be very helpful in reducing the involuntary movements in Tourette’s Syndrome. It is also useful in conditions in which there is a muscle weakness. As the neurological process is improved, nerve signals are influenced and weak muscles respond with greater strength.
One of the most exciting areas in which lecithin has make noticeable differences, is in the improvement of auditory processing function in children. Since we know that the left hemisphere of the brain is responsible for auditory storage, and we often refer to it as the “thinking hemisphere,” we can see how any substance that improves auditory processing would also affect the thinking ability of the brain. There have been many reports from speech pathologists and parents telling of greatly-improved auditory processing (hearing and remembering) in children who take this natural product. It has also been noted that when lecithin is taken alone it is very helpful, but when taken along with the essential fatty acids (fish oil, flaxseed oil, evening primrose oil) and Vitamin E, it produces marked results. Because of its fat-emulsifying properties it helps the child’s body digest the extra oils, thereby making use of them properly. Many children who have suffered with numerous ear infections benefit from the regular use of lecithin. The cilia of the ear are frequently damaged when many ear infections have occurred. It is known that the highest concentration of Vitamin A in the whole body is in the cilia of the ear. Lecithin increases the body’s absorption of this vital Vitamin A dramatically, thus it is very healing to the areas in the ear structure and brain that affect efficient auditory processing function. This is a very exciting application of research since auditory processing problems are historically difficult and lengthy to treat.
Lecithin is also very calming to the nervous system. A key phospholipid in lecithin, phosphatidylinositol, breaks down into inositol once in our body. Inositol supports nerve function, and many anecdotal reports describe inositol as “calming.” Dr. Feingold, author of the famous “Feingold Diet,” also used lecithin extensively in his supplemental program for children who were suffering with hyperactivity. The myelin sheath, the fatty covering that coats the nerve endings, is largely composed of lecithin. We often refer to children who are hyperactive as looking as though they are “wired.” It’s likely that we are unconsciously identifying a neurological process that is happening as the nervous system is being affected by the breakdown of the fatty covering of the nerves. Lecithin serves to nourish the fatty sheaths covering these nerve fibers. In the book Emotions and Your Health, it is stated that lecithin appears to calm “hypomania.” This is a condition of heightened activity along with impulsivity and an endless energy that continues—at times this seems out of the control of the individual and often is accompanied by the lack of need for much sleep. This describes fairly accurately the children who are truly hyperactive. Lecithin does not act as a magic bullet in cases of hyperactivity but can make a substantial difference when taken over a long period of time in feeding the body what it needs to properly execute important nervous system functions.
Lecithin (phosphatidylcholine) is our body’s super lubricant, coating tissues and helping to reduce friction, especially for the larger joints – elbows, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles. When a person exercises regularly to improve his/her muscle tone, the amount of lecithin (phosphatidylcholine) contained in the muscles increases. This increase in lecithin helps muscles rid themselves of the lactic acid which builds up during strenuous exercise, and may result in greater endurance of the muscle. Choline in lecithin supports increased acetylcholine production, a neurotransmitter used by our body to stimulate muscle activity. Muscle activity can be impaired during endurance sports when reserves of choline in our body begin to run low (e.g., hitting the ‘wall’ in a marathon).
A huge proportion of skin diseases often have their roots in lack of moisture. Lecithin’s capability of restoring skin’s moisture, keeping the cell walls soft and supple, can be helpful in healing such conditions effectively. Lecithin contains linoleic and linolenic acid, the absolutely essential fractions of dietary fat. As adult Americans try to reduce their fat intake, no one has told them that they may thereby be creating a fatty acid deficiency. The irritable-skin, dry-skin, broken-skin consequences of long-term linoleic and especially linolenic acid deficiency are very common. In the treatment of psoriasis, lecithin is mixed with coal tar to make a topical solution known as Psoriderm cream. The lecithin works to soften the psoriasis scales so the coal tar can be absorbed to break down the skin. Constant lecithin intake also found to provide partial relief in painful skin cracks in feet.
Lecithin supports and enhances the required amount of protein for hair growth while improving the texture and look of hair by adding shine or luster. Its high concentration of fatty acids creates a barrier on the skin and hair that effectively captures and seals in moisture. This moisturizing benefit makes lecithin perfect for persons suffering from dry, brittle hair. It adds shine, seals in moisture, and restores hair’s natural protective coating often damaged by styling, chemical applications, heat, or environmental changes. Also to be noted, out of all the compounds that proved their efficacy against hair loss and that stimulate hair growth, lecithin is one of the important ones.
Because it is a necessary nutrient for all cells, a lack or depletion of lecithin may cause decreased ability to reproduce new cells, thereby diminishing the body's ability to regenerate. A key component of lecithin, phosphatidylcholine, is the main lipid component in both plant and animal cellular membranes. Every cell of your body contains phosphatidylcholine, which is responsible for maintaining the surface tension of the cell membrane. Without enough phosphatidylcholine, our cell walls harden and do not allow enough nutrients in or wastes out. Protecting cells is integral in maintaining a body's resistance to many diseases that attack damaged cells and cause premature aging.
Autopsies show that multiple sclerosis patients have significantly less lecithin in the brain, spine and myelin sheath than normal persons. The autopsies also show that the lecithin that is present in the brain and myelin sheath of these MS victims is essentially composed of all saturated fatty acids and no unsaturated fatty acids. MS is also known to have a much higher incidence in countries where the diet is high in saturated fats. We have since learned that it’s trans fats, rather than saturated fats. Lecithin acts as an emulsifier and breaks down the fats and cholesterol in the diet into tiny particles and holds them in suspension, preventing them from sticking to blood platelets or arterial walls.
Lecithin works a a general detoxifier for the body by decongesting the liver of excess fats. Phosphatidylcholine is a required component of VLDL particles that transport triglycerides and cholesterol from our liver through the blood to tissues for tissue repair, storage, or energy production. Without adequate phosphatidylcholine, fat and cholesterol may accumulate in the liver, contributing to fatty liver disease. Animal and human studies have revealed that diets deficient of choline or lecithin often resulted in cirrhosis and liver dysfunction. Lecithin, along with other substances, is used by the liver to make bile. Bile emulsifies fat and fat soluble nutrients like essential fatty acids along with vitamins A, D, E, and K. This emulsion facilitates the absorption of these nutrients into the body. If cholesterol moves into the bile without sufficient amounts of bile salts and phosphatidylcholine, it can crystallize and form gallstones. That’s why taking lecithin supplements may help to avert often painful gallstones.
A 10-year study of baboons found that lecithin prevents two serious side effects of alcohol abuse: severe liver scarring and cirrhosis. Other research suggests that it may also be suitable for liver problems caused by hepatitis. Baboon livers are remarkably similar to human livers (This is one reason an attempt was made many years back to transplant baboon livers into humans whose livers had failed). Given this, it seems logical that lecithin should provide human drinkers at least some of the benefits seen in the baboons. Accordingly, for those who drink, especially heavily, lecithin may be an invaluable form of health insurance.
Lecithin supports healthy metabolism because it supports liver health. When our liver is toxic, it struggles to convert thyroid hormone to its active form, along with the 500+ other metabolic functions performed by our liver. Improving the function of your liver is the best way to boost your metabolism.
In diseases of the gastrointestinal tract. Lecithin protects the stomach lining from the harmful effects of stress and drugs, promotes rapid healing of ulcers. Lecithin emulsifies fats for easier digestion of fatty foods. If you are deficient in lecithin, supplementation can support digestion and utilization of fat soluble vitamins (D, K, E and A). Phosphatidylcholine is a crucial component of the mucosal layer in the intestinal tract. Without a healthy mucosal layer, inflammation of the intestinal walls results.
Taking one gram of lecithin the day before a journey and one gram one hour before, is sometimes used as a natural travel sickness remedy. The lecithin is thought to act as an emulsifier in the lumina of the digestive tract, which acts as a natural buffer so that the acidity of the digestive tract is diminished.
Lecithin may cause a loss of appetite. This may be due to the fact that lecithin is a source of fat. Fat delays stomach emptying, which might keep you feeling full longer and affect your appetite.
As a tool for heart health, lecithin also works to reverse and prevent damages that may arise from coronary artery disease. Preventing cholesterol and other fats from sticking is a vital function for the overall health of anyone with a predisposition to heart disease and other cardiovascular afflictions. The lubrication provided by lecithin creates a slippery lining on which it is difficult for large, fatty deposits to adhere. When large deposits of fat cannot adhere to specific regions of the body, they are transported to the liver where they are metabolized and converted to energy. Improved circulation seen as a result of lecithin supplementation helps to prevent blood clots and maintain the health of the liver through which excess fats and energy-providing substances will pass. In the event of clogged arteries in which deposits of cholesterol have accumulated, it is important not only to change the diet so that no further accumulation occurs but also to take steps to remove existing deposits. An effective, safe, and noninvasive manner of doing this is to use lecithin, lipase, and flax oil, which work most powerfully when used together. Lipase digests fats, including cholesterol, but is only available to work on the surface of the cholesterol. Lecithin emulsifies the cholesterol, breaking it down into smaller particles so that the lipase can more readily digest it. Flax oil will also assist greatly in removing deposits of cholesterol by helping to liquefy the cholesterol. Some recent research suggests that cholesterol by itself has a melting point of about 300 degrees Farenheit; thus, it is quite solid at body temperature. When lecithin is present, the melting point drops to 180 degrees Farenheit; thus, it will still be solid at body temperature. However, when the essential fatty acid omega-6 (linoleic acid) is also present along with the lecithin, the melting point of cholesterol drops all the way to 32 degrees Farenheit. Thus, it would appear that in the presence of sufficient quantities of both lecithin and omega-6, cholesterol will be liquid at body temperature and the danger of cholesterol deposits greatly reduced, if not removed entirely.
Choline supplied by lecithin may be oxidized in our body to form the metabolite betaine, which helps to lower serum homocysteine levels – our body uses betaine to convert homocysteine to the amino acid methionine. Elevated levels of homocysteine in our blood have been associated with increased risk of cardiovascular diseases.
More than 38 clinical research studies support the use of soy supplements to reduce cholesterol levels. Not only does lecithin raise HDL cholesterol, it also lowers LDL cholesterol. Based upon this strong conclusive evidence, the United States Food and Drug Administration approved the claim that taking a 25-milligram soy lecithin supplement each day significantly reduces serum cholesterol levels and decreases the risk of heart disease. Lecithin is widely used in Europe, often under the name Plaquex, to dissolve plaque in the body’s arteries.
Lecithin is an essential fatty acid that is important for the lining of the lungs due to its ability to soothe mucous membranes and prevent irritation. Therefore, it has been found helpful for allergies, hay fever, asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema. Lecithin acts as a pulmonary surfactant, preventing the alveoli from collapsing.
Lecithin may increase volume of male ejaculate, as male semen contains a considerable amount of lecithin.
As choline, found in high amounts in lecithin, is especially important to the growing brain and nervous system of infants, it is an essential part of human breast milk and necessary in the diets of nursing mothers in high amounts. Supplemental lecithin has been recommended as a treatment for plugged milk ducts. The reason why lecithin may help resolve and prevent plugged ducts is not clear, but it is believed to function by decreasing the viscosity (stickiness) of the milk by increasing the percentage of polyunsaturated fatty acids in the milk.