This was the title of a report in the British Medical Journal (1), pointing out that choline is an essential nutrient, much like omega-3 fats, that is vital for health and especially the brain, but not sufficiently supplied in many people’s diets, and especially those who are largely vegan.
While the body can make a little, it does not make enough and thus choline is being reclassified as an essential nutrient with an adequate intake defined as between 400mg and 520mg a day, the latter for pregnant and breast-feeding women. But these levels don’t relate to brain function. They relate to the EFSA allowed claims of “choline is needed for lipids metabolism”, “maintaining healthy liver functioning” and “reduction in homocysteine levels”. You need choline to do the right thing with cholesterol in the liver.
But even more important is choline’s role in building and maintaining a healthy brain. A pregnant woman’s intake defines the cognitive abilities of their child. Twenty years ago we knew that pregnant rats fed choline half way through their pregnancy have more connections between brain cells, plus improved learning ability and better memory recall. Now we know it’s true for babies. In fact, a lack of choline can lead to a shrinking of a woman’s brain as the foetus robs their brain to build its own – a case of ‘Mummy I shrank your brain’. Babies are born with blood choline levels three times higher than their mother, illustrating how vital this nutrient is for building neuronal connections, which newborn babies do at a rate of up to a million new connections a second! An optimal intake for brain function is likely to be a lot higher than the 400mg recommended for adults.
Brain cells are made of a membrane containing choline (and other phospholipids) attached to the omega-3 fat DHA. Without choline the omega-3 doesn’t work. The attaching of the two depends on methylation, a process that is dependent on B vitamins, especially B12, folate and B6. Choline helps methylation and healthy methylation, indicated by low homocysteine, helps synthesize choline.
The reason the BMJ says ‘crisis’ is that more people are eating a plant-based diet and shunning eggs, fish and meat, which are the best sources of, not only choline, but also B12. There’s a tiny bit of choline in broccoli and in nuts, but not enough. An egg provides around 120mg, a 50g beef or salmon steak around 50mg. The same amount of almonds or broccoli is about 25mg. Cow’s milk has a little, but a fraction of that found in human milk. Beef liver is the richest source.
Twenty years ago I found the evidence sufficiently compelling to recommend eating an egg a day, three servings of fish and one of meat (or another portion of fish) a week, a handful of nuts, plus daily supplementation of circa 100mg, which is what I do in my ‘brain food’ formula. If you also ate a serving of broccoli a day, you’d be achieving something like 2,100mg a week, or 300mg a day – still short of daily requirements.
If you don’t eat eggs, fish or meat and don’t supplement there’s no way of getting even close. That’s why it’s time to add choline, along with omega-3 DHA and B12, to the list of nutrients that must be supplemented by those eating a vegan diet. Lecithin granules and capsules are the richest vegan source of choline, derived from soya. It will not work in building the brain, without a source of DHA which can be derived, in supplements, from algae or seaweed.
If you want more strategies on what to eat and do to support ad upgrade your brain make sure you complete the Cognitive Function Test below to get your plan of action for improving your brain over the next 6 months.