Lecithin is a beneficial nutrient for the body.

What Is Lecithin & What Is the Function of It?

by Rose Haney

Lecithin, a fat-like material made up of choline and inositol, is a naturally occurring substance in the body and a major component of cell membranes. It can be obtained through diet with foods such as egg yolks, beef liver, soy beans, legumes and fish. Lecithin is also a common food additive used as an emulsifying agent in commercially produced foods. A number of health claims have been attributed to lecithin such as reducing clogged milk ducts in nursing moms, lowering cholesterol levels and improving liver and brain function. However, clinical evidence is still necessary to substantiate some of the claims.

1. Function

Produced in the liver, lecithin is a main component of cell membranes. It provides cell membranes with the flexibility to allow nutrients to flow in and out. Lecithin can also be consumed through diet, which is considered beneficial because it is a rich source of choline, an essential nutrient for brain and memory function. A study published in the 2000 issue of “The Journal of the American College of Nutrition” reports that choline from your diet is critical to brain development and that its presence or absence during critical developmental stages can profoundly affect the livelihood of nerve cells in the memory centers of the brain.

2. Effects on Clogged Milk Ducts

Dr. Cheryl Scott, a lactation consultant for Kaiser Permanente, recommends increasing lecithin intake to reduce the occurrence of lactation mastitis, a condition which results from an infection in the breast due to clogged milk ducts. Lecithin's emulsifying ability is thought to aid fats and oils in a mother's milk to be suspended evenly, which may help to prevent clogging and subsequent infection.

3. Effects on the Liver

Lecithin reportedly helps to ward off certain liver disorders such as the development of scar tissue and fatty deposits that can ultimately lead to liver cancer. In a 2007 article published in “Pediatric Research," researchers report a lecithin-supplemented diet dramatically reduced expected liver damage in mice engineered to develop liver disease. Additionally, Robert Wildman, author of "Handbook of Nutraceuticals and Functional Foods," cites several studies showing diets low in lecithin, thus choline, can lead to increased incidences of liver cancer.

4. Effects on Cholesterol

The University of Michigan Health System says lecithin's ability to reduce cholesterol levels remains unclear. Its positive effects on cholesterol appear to be due more likely to the polyunsaturated fats found in lecithin. Vegetable oils such as olive oil are a less expensive way to incorporate polyunsaturated fats in your diet. In a 1998 study published in the "European Journal of Clinical Nutrition," the researchers demonstrate that daily consumption of lecithin for four weeks failed to lower cholesterol levels.

About the Author

Rose Haney received her joint doctoral degree in clinical psychology from San Diego State University and University of California, San Diego. Her clinical and research specialties are neuropsychology and neuroimaging. She has been published in several scientific journals and has presented her work at numerous national conferences. She has been freelance writing since 2008.

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