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Choline – Do You Need it in Your Diet?

Do You Need Choline in Your Diet to Be Healthy?

Bonnie Clark

Choline is an essential nutrient your body needs in order to keep cell membranes healthy and to help process brain chemicals used in memory. Although your body can make some choline on its own, you still need to get more from your diet. A choline deficiency can actually be dangerous and lead to variety of potentially serious health problems.

Choline is related to the B vitamins and often included in that group. It was first discovered in the 1930s, and the National Academy of Sciences added it in their Adequate Intake levels in 1998 for the first time. Choline has similar properties to bile in your body; without choline, many fat-based nutrients and waste products couldn't travel through your cells.

That's not all choline does. It protects your cell membranes, makes it possible for your nerves to communicate with your muscles, prevents toxic levels of the harmful homocysteine compound and helps reduce inflammation. Several studies have investigated choline's effects on memory function with mixed results, although choline has shown promise in helping reduce symptoms of manic depression.

A mild choline deficiency may lead to fatigue, insomnia, kidney problems, memory problems, nerve-muscle imbalances and a folic acid deficiency. In extreme cases, choline deficiency can cause impaired growth in tissues, red blood cells and bone, anemia, liver problems, kidney problems, high blood pressure and heart problems.

A study by the Linus Pauling Institute also found that adults fed choline-deficient diets developed damage to their liver and muscles. On the other hand, Greek researchers discovered people with the highest levels of choline in their diets had inflammatory markers 20 percent lower than subjects with low intakes. A study by the March of Dimes found that pregnant women who consumed the most choline had a 72 percent lower risk of a neural tube defect in their baby. How much do you need? The National Academy of Sciences recommends women get 425 milligrams and men 550 milligrams. Foods high in choline include calf liver, containing 452 milligrams choline per small serving; egg yolks at 126 milligrams choline each; chicken has 67 milligrams per 3-ounce serving, and the same amount of salmon has 58 milligrams. Other good sources include soy products, meats, dairy, nuts and seeds, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and wheat germ.

Vegans who consume no milk or eggs may be at risk of low choline intake and require supplements, as may certain seniors. However, it's also possible to get too much choline, with high doses of 10 to 15 grams or more able to cause a fishy body odor, high body temperature, nausea, vomiting, increased salivation, sweating and dizziness or fainting related to low blood pressure. The National Academy of Sciences established 3.5 grams per day as the maximum safe dosage for most people.

Choline may not be on your nutritional radar, but getting the right balance of this nutrient is vital for normal body functions. If you include eggs, fish, nuts and seeds, whole grains and vegetables in your diet every week, you're probably getting about the right amount of choline you need in order to stay healthy.

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