The Health Benefits of Lecithin

Nutritional Supplement May Lower Cholesterol & Improve Colitis

Lecithin (also known as alpha-phosphatidylcholine) is a naturally occurring nutrient found in foods that is also sold as a dietary supplement. Lecithin is not a single substance but rather a group of chemicals belonging to compounds called phospholipids. Phospholipid, a type of fat that helps maintain the integrity of cells, are vital to the normal functioning of the brain, nerves, liver, and other vital organs.

Lecithin can be found in green vegetables, red meat, and eggs. Commercial preparations are most often made from soybeans, egg yolks, or animal products. Not only is lecithin taken as a supplement, but it is also used in the manufacture of eye drops, skin moisturizers, and food emulsifiers (agents that keep ingredients from separating).

As a supplement, lecithin is thought to lower cholesterol and treat certain neurological and inflammatory conditions. However, it is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for any of these purposes.

Also Known As

  • Egg lecithin
  • Lecithinum ex soya
  • Ovolecithin
  • Sojalecithin
  • Soya lecithin
  • Soy lecithin
  • Soy phospholipid
  • Soybean lecithin
  • Vegilecithin
  • Vitellin
  • Vitelline
Lecithin
Tassii / Getty Images

Health Benefits

When ingested, lecithin is broken down into a substance called choline, which the body uses to transport fat, regulate metabolism, maintain the structural integrity of cells, and facilitate nerve transmissions (by synthesizing a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine). Choline is not readily produced by the body; most of it is obtained from the foods we eat.

Lecithin has been touted for its benefits in treating many health conditions and is said to:

  • Improve sleep patterns
  • Enhance athletic performance
  • Alleviate stress and anxiety
  • Lower cholesterol
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Improve liver function
  • Prevent the loss of cognitive function and the onset of dementia

To date, there is insubstantial evidence that the supplemental use of lecithin can treat any medical condition.

High Cholesterol

A 2010 study published in the journal Cholesterol reported that soy lecithin, given daily as a 500-milligram (mg) supplement, reduced total cholesterol levels by 42% and "bad" LDL cholesterol levels by 56.15% after two months. This suggests that lecithin may be an effective supplemental treatment of hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol).

With that said, lecithin also plays a role in the development of atherosclerosis ("hardening of the arteries"), with some studies suggesting that the excessive intake may increase cardiovascular risk. Additional research is needed.

Ulcerative Colitis

Ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory bowel disease that has been linked to low levels of a chemical found in lecithin called phosphatidylcholine. Phosphatidylcholine, a component of mucus in the digestive tract, helps protect the colon from inflammation and the infiltration of bacteria in stools.

A 2010 study published in Digestive Diseases reported that lecithin supplements reduced bowel inflammation in people with ulcerative colitis by 50% compared to those treated with a placebo. The findings, however, were limited by the small size of the study (18 adults). Other studies have not found such benefits.

Mastitis

Mastitis, the inflammation of breast tissues, is a common ailment in breastfeeding mothers. Some studies have reported that lecithin can help to prevent clogged milk ducts that lead to mastitis. Lecithin appears to decrease the viscosity of breastmilk and is generally regards as safe for human consumption.

With that said, lecithin remains understudied in women with mastitis and should not be used without first consulting an obstetrician or other qualified health professional.

Alzheimer's Disease

Choline derived from lecithin is thought to improved cognitive function in people with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia (including Parkinson's dementia). 

As a precursor to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, lecithin may help increase nerve transmissions in the brain and ease the symptoms of these progressive and often devastating neurologic disorders. To date, the findings to support these benefits are lacking.

There is currently no evidence that supplemental lecithin can slow or reverse the progression of dementia in people with Alzheimer's or any other neurologic disorder.

However, some animal studies have suggested that lecithin may have a neuroprotective effect, reducing the risk of dementia by slowing the degeneration of glial cells that protect and stabilize brain tissues. Further research is needed.

Possible Side Effects

Although lecithin supplements are generally regarded as safe, they are not regulated in the same way as prescription drugs. Therefore, it is important to consult with a doctor before taking lecithin or any other supplement, particularly if you are managing a health condition, have allergies, or are taking medications of any sort.

Common side effects of lecithin may include:

  • Increased salivation
  • Decreased appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Abdominal bloating

Allergic reactions have been known to occur, although they are relatively uncommon, even among people with soy allergies. Lecithin made from soybeans do not contain sufficient soy protein to induce allergy, say experts from the University of Nebraska’s Food Allergy Research and Resource Program (FARRP).

As a precaution, lecithin should not be used in women who are breastfeeding, pregnant, or trying to get pregnant unless under the direction an obstetrician-gynecologist. Children should avoid lecithin due to the lack of safety research.

Dosage and Preparation

Lecithin is available as a pill, tablet, capsule, softgel, granules, powder, liquid, or paste. There are no guidelines for the appropriate use of lecithin, although many manufacturers endorse a daily dose of 2,400 mg for adults. As a general rule never exceed the recommended dosage on the product label.

What to Look For

There are no regulatory agencies in the United States, including the FDA, that govern the purity or safety of supplements.

To better ensure safety and quality, choose supplements that have been independently tested by a third-party certifying body like the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), NSF International, or ConsumerLab. These authorities can certify that the ingredients are pure and in the amounts listed on the product label.

In addition to supplements, there are food sources of lecithin that may be able to provide all of the nutrient you need.

Food Sources of Lecithin

  • Organ meats (such as liver)
  • Red meat
  • Seafood
  • Eggs
  • Peanuts
  • Wheat germ
  • Canola oil
  • Sunflower oil
  • Green vegetables (like broccoli, and Brussels sprouts)
  • Legumes (such as black beans, kidney beans, and soybeans)

Other Questions

Is soy lecithin derived from genetically modified (GM) sources?

In the United States, many large-scale commercial crops, including soybean plants, are derived from GM sources. To avoid soy lecithin made from genetically modified soybeans, only choose products that are labeled "organic." 

How is soy lecithin made?

Soy lecithin is commonly manufactured with chemicals such as hexane or acetone that extract lecithin from the soybean. Hexane is a harsh compound commonly used to make varnish and glue. 

To avoid hexane or acetate exposure, look for supplements that are steam-processed. This is usually advertised on the product label.

Are there alternatives to soy lecithin?

Yes. Lecithin can be also found, albeit less commonly, in sunflower lecithin made from the gum of dehydrated sunflower oil. Because sunflower oil is derived from cold-pressed or hot-pressed seeds, sunflower lecithin is less likely to involve hexane or acetate.

A Word From Verywell

There is a general lack of research on the safety and efficacy of natural supplements like lecithin. This doesn't necessarily mean that the supplement does not work or is unsafe; it simply means that consumers need to use their best judgment when taking supplements, ideally under the supervision of a doctor.

It is important to remember that there is no recommended daily intake of lecithin and that you will likely get enough by eating a balanced diet high in green vegetables, legumes, and healthy fats.

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