What Is Choline? | The #1 A-Z Guide

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what-is-choline

Whether you’re researching nootropics for the first time or have been using them for years, you’ve probably come across several people recommending choline.

But you may be wondering: What is choline, and why is it so highly recommended among nootropics users?

Well, the simple answer is that choline is an essential nutrient that — like nootropics — can boost your cognitive function, AND it may help reduce headaches associated with nootropic use.

Here’s what you need to know about choline…

Click here to order our top recommended Choline supplement!

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What Is Choline?

Choline is an essential nutrient, but a pretty unique one compared to other essential vitamins and minerals. You see, choline is neither a vitamin nor a mineral — it’s a unique organic compound found mostly in animal sources. It was not even recognized as an essential nutrient by the National Academy of Medicine until 1998 [1].

Choline is a key player in many different important body functions. The phospholipids that line your cell membranes contain choline, and the neurotransmitter acetylcholine — as the name suggests — contains choline. Even uridine, one of the building blocks of your DNA, is made from a choline-containing compound [2].

Because choline is relatively new on the nutrient scene, there’s still a lot that researchers are learning about it.

However, nootropics users seem to love choline. According to many anecdotal reports, it has nootropic properties of its own, while helping to reduce some of the unpleasant side effects associated with nootropic use — namely headaches.

And although we’re still learning about the nutrient, there’s been a significant amount of research on its role in cognitive enhancement, among its several other benefits.

what-is-choline

Choline Benefits

Choline plays several important roles in the body. The well-documented choline benefits are:

  • Neuroprotection and cognitive enhancement: Choline is a structural component of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is one of the main neurotransmitters that communicates signals to and from the nervous system. Some research has also shown that dietary choline intake is associated with better cognitive function [1].
  • Cholesterol management: Choline may also help to regulate cholesterol digestion and metabolism, keeping excess cholesterol from building up in the liver — which could potentially reduce heart disease risk [3].
  • Cell membrane structure and function: Choline is a key component of the phospholipids that form cell membranes, particularly phosphatidylcholine — the most abundant phospholipid in the body. These phospholipids not only form the structural membrane surrounding the cell, but also regulate the permeability of cells (what comes in and what goes out). Two studies have noted damage to liver and muscle tissue in humans after just 3 weeks of choline restriction, because of damage caused by increased cell permeability [1, 4].

Choline also supports DNA synthesis and fetal and infant brain development. In fact, pregnant women are often recommended to take choline in addition to their prenatal vitamins.

Side Effects of Choline

Choline is relatively free of side effects, unless you take too much. The side effects of overdoing choline can be pretty unpleasant, including things like [5]:

  • Fishy body odor
  • Sweatiness
  • Excessive saliva production
  • Vomiting
  • Low blood pressure

High doses may also cause liver toxicity, where your liver is unable to process such large quantities of the nutrient.

Additionally, there’s some controversy over the healthfulness of free choline because it increases your body’s production of trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), which has been linked to heart disease [6].

Fortunately, foods high in choline don't appear to increase heart disease risk, according to a large observational study in over 184,000 participants [7].

Additionally, there are no known or notable interactions between choline and any other supplements or medications. On the whole, it’s safe unless you are taking massive doses.

Types of Choline

There are several different types of choline found in food, in your body or used in supplements. Here’s a run-down of what you need to know about the most common ones [8]:

  • Choline bitartrate: This is the most common supplemental form of choline. It’s about 40% choline by weight and extremely inexpensive, but not as well-absorbed or utilized by the body as some other forms.
  • Citicoline: Cytidine diphosphate-choline, also known as Citicoline or CDP-choline, is a widely used nootropic and a precursor to uridine, one of the five nucleic acids used by the body to build DNA. It contains 18% choline and boasts some impressive cognitive benefits.
  • Phosphatidylcholine: Phosphatidylcholine is the form of choline that’s in most choline foods. It’s a phospholipid, and contains 13% choline by weight.
  • Alpha-glyceryl phosphorylcholine: This form, also known as Alpha-GPC, is 40% choline. It’s a favorite choline supplement type among nootropics users, as it's well-absorbed and is able to cross the blood-brain barrier [9].
  • Choline chloride: This supplemental form of choline is often used in animal feed, but is rarely used in supplements designed for human use.

Choline is also found in soy lecithin, and some people take lecithin supplements; however, these are only about 2.5-3% choline by weight.

choline

Choline Dosage Guide

The National Academy of Medicine has set a number of guidelines regarding how much choline most people need, known collectively as the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs). The first is the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA). This amount is thought to meet the needs of most healthy people. Researchers do not yet know this number for choline, so choline doesn’t have an RDA. Instead, choline has an Adequate Intake (AI) level. The AI ensures that most healthy people won’t experience symptoms of deficiency. The AI for choline for adults is [5]:
  • Male: 550 mg/day
  • Female: 425 mg/day
    • Pregnant: 450 mg/day
    • Breastfeeding: 550 mg/day
Surprisingly, most Americans don’t get enough choline to meet the AI level, meaning that — between food sources and the choline that’s naturally produced by the body — they aren’t getting quite enough of the nutrient. Although signs of true choline deficiency are rare, many people come up short when it comes to choline foods in their diet. It’s tempting to speculate how much better the health of Americans would be as a whole if everyone was getting enough of this powerhouse nutrient. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL), which is the most that an average healthy person can take without beginning to risk the side effects of choline toxicity. The UL for choline for adults is:
  • Male: 3,500 mg/day
  • Female: 3,500 mg/day
    • Pregnant: 3,500 mg/day
    • Breastfeeding: 3,500 mg/day
When choosing your choline dose, it’s best to at least hit the AI of 425-550 mg/day — but that would include choline from all sources, including foods with choline. On a supplement bottle, the “% Daily Value” for choline shows you how much of the AI a single dose of the supplement will provide. Most choline supplements contain anywhere from 45% to 100% of the AI for choline.

Best Choline Supplements

Interested in supplementing with choline? Here are our top picks for the best choline supplement:

1. Jarrow Formulas Citicoline

As we mentioned above, Citicoline isn’t just a choline supplement — it’s a unique compound made from choline that is used as a nootropic in its own right. This one from Jarrow Formulas, a trusted supplement manufacturer, has glowing reviews regarding its effectiveness for focus, memory and mental clarity.

2. NOW Supplements Choline & Inositol

Our next recommendation, from NOW Foods, is made with choline bitartrate, so it’s very reasonably priced. It also has excellent reviews, and provides 45% of the DV for choline — along with inositol, a type of sugar that’s rich in brain tissues and may help boost brain function when taken in supplemental form.

3. Nested Naturals Choline Bitartrate

This choline supplement is also made from choline bitartrate, but provides over 90% of the DV for choline. It’s also vegan, so it may be appropriate for people who follow vegan diets and therefore are unable to eat many of the richest choline sources. Like the other products we recommend, it has excellent reviews from users who rave about how much it has helped with their memory and attention span.

Foods with Choline | Beginner’s Guide

Choline is richest in animal sources — particularly egg yolks and beef liver, which are concentrated sources of several nutrients.

According to the U.S. government’s National Institutes of Health, the top 10 foods richest in choline are [5]:

  • Pan fried beef liver, 3 ounces: 356 mg (65% of the Daily Value)
  • Large hard-boiled egg: 147 mg (27% of the DV)
  • Braised beef top round, lean, 3 ounces: 117 mg (21% of the DV)
  • Roasted soybeans, ½ cup: 107 mg (19% of the DV)
  • Roasted chicken breast, 3 ounces: 72 mg (13% of the DV)
  • Broiled ground beef, 93% lean, 3 ounces: 72 mg (13% of the DV)
  • Atlantic cod, cooked with dry heat, 3 ounces: 71 mg (13% of the DV)
  • Large baked red potato with skin: 57 mg (10% of the DV)
  • Toasted wheat germ, 1 ounce: 51 mg (9% of the DV)
  • Canned kidney beans, ½ cup: 45 mg (8% of the DV)

Although most people don’t get enough choline in their diet, it’s more than possible. Make sure your diet is rich in lean proteins, like lean beef, chicken and fish. If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, kidney beans and soybeans are your best bet.

Also, to easily meet the DV for choline, make sure to include egg yolks in your diet. Although they’ve been the subject of controversy in the past, most experts now agree that the benefits of egg yolks far outweigh the minor potential risk that their cholesterol content poses.

Choline and Modafinil

One popular Modafinil stack — or combination of supplements or other nootropics that helps potentiate Modafinil — is Modafinil and choline.

This is because one of the most common side effects of Modafinil is headache, and many users have reported that taking choline alongside Modafinil makes this pesky side effect disappear.

Unfortunately, there’s really no research to support this except for one study from the 1980s that found a link between low levels of choline in the red blood cells and cluster headaches [10].

Regardless, there are several Modafinil users who report that taking choline is the only way they’re able to enjoy the nootropic benefits of Modafinil—because it’s the only thing that’s worked to rid them of Modafinil headaches. Additionally, there are no known interactions between Modafinil and choline that would make them unsafe to take together [11].

Here’s what one Reddit user recommended to another who was asking about using choline for headache:

“Definitely add choline! This will help with your headaches. Take 250-500mgs at breakfast and 250 later in the day if it doesn't go away. I've had the same issue before when using nootropics.”

Just remember, though, there’s no concrete research to back up this link between Modafinil and choline, so your mileage may vary. For some other ways to ease up your Modafinil headache, check out our post on how to get rid of Modafinil headaches.

choline

What Is Choline? | Verdict

The verdict is out on this one…

Choline is an essential nutrient that helps regulate cognitive function and cell membrane permeability. Many people report increased focus and concentration from supplementing with choline, and it’s also commonly stacked with Modafinil to prevent Modafinil headaches.

However, there’s currently no scientific evidence to support the use of choline to prevent Modafinil headaches.

Regardless, if you’re interested in supplementing with this brain-boosting nutrient, stock up on our top choline supplement pick.

Click here to order our top recommended Choline supplement!

References

  1. Wiedeman AM, Barr SI, Green TJ, Xu Z, Innis SM, Kitts DD. Dietary Choline Intake: Current State of Knowledge Across the Life Cycle. Nutrients. 2018;10(10):1513. Published 2018 Oct 16. doi:10.3390/nu10101513
  2. Wurtman RJ, Regan M, Ulus I, Yu L. Effect of oral CDP-choline on plasma choline and uridine levels in humans. Biochem Pharmacol. 2000;60(7):989-992. doi:10.1016/s0006-2952(00)00436-6
  3. Al Rajabi A, Castro GS, da Silva RP, et al. Choline supplementation protects against liver damage by normalizing cholesterol metabolism in Pemt/Ldlr knockout mice fed a high-fat diet. J Nutr. 2014;144(3):252-257. doi:10.3945/jn.113.185389
  4. Li Z, Vance DE. Phosphatidylcholine and choline homeostasis. J Lipid Res. 2008;49(6):1187-1194. doi:10.1194/jlr.R700019-JLR200
  5. National Institutes of Health. Choline: Health professional fact sheet. Office of Dietary Supplements website. July 10, 2020. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Choline-HealthProfessional/
  6. Cho C, Aardema ND, Bunnell ML, et al. Free choline, but not phosphatidylcholine, elevates circulating trimethylamine-N-oxide and this response is modified by the gut microbiota composition in healthy men. Curr Dev Nutr. 2020;4(2):379. doi:10.1093/cdn/nzaa045_012
  7. Meyer KA, Shea JW. Dietary Choline and Betaine and Risk of CVD: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Prospective Studies. Nutrients. 2017;9(7):711. Published 2017 Jul 7. doi:10.3390/nu9070711
  8. Brandes J. The pharmacology of smart drugs. Presentation; n.d.
  9. Abbiati G, Fossati T, Lachmann G, Bergamaschi M, Castiglioni C. Absorption, tissue distribution and excretion of radiolabelled compounds in rats after administration of [14C]-L-alpha-glycerylphosphorylcholine. Eur J Drug Metab Pharmacokinet. 1993;18(2):173-180. doi:10.1007/BF03188793
  10. de Belleroche J, Cook GE, Das I, et al. Erythrocyte choline concentrations and cluster headache. Br Med J (Clin Res Ed). 1984;288(6413):268-270. doi:10.1136/bmj.288.6413.268
  11. Drug interaction report. Drugs.com website. Accessed February 2021. https://www.drugs.com/interactions-check.php?drug_list=1647-0,649-0

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