The Health Benefits of Lecithin

Nutritional Supplement May Lower Cholesterol & Improve Colitis

Lecithin (alpha-phosphatidylcholine) is a nutrient, as well as a supplement. Lecithin is not a single substance, but rather, a group of chemicals belonging to compounds called phospholipids. The importance of phospholipids is that they are required by the body to build cell membranes and are vital to the normal functioning of the brain, blood, nerves and other tissues.

Lecithin can be found in many foods. The commercial preparations of lecithin are most often made from egg yolk, soybeans, or animal sources. Not only is lecithin taken as an essential fat supplement, but it is also produced for many other purposes, such as to manufacture eye medications (to help eye drops adhere to the cornea), as an emulsifier in food products (to keep ingredients from separating), as a skin moisturizer, in cooking spray, and more.

As a supplement, lecithin has been used for many ailments, including lowering cholesterol levels, treating neurological disorders and liver conditions, and more. However, it is not FDA-approved for any of these uses.

Also Known As

  • Lecithinum ex soya
  • Sojalecithin
  • Lecithin natural
  • Lecithin-softgels
  • Soya lecithin
  • Egg lecithin
  • Lecitina
  • Ovolecithin
  • Soy lecithin
  • Soy phospholipid
  • Soybean lecithin
  • Vegilecithin
  • Vitellin
  • Vitelline

Health Benefits

When ingested, lecithin is broken down into a substance called choline, which the body uses for many vital processes including:

  • Transporting fats
  • Metabolism (breaking down food for energy)
  • Facilitating nerve transmissions in the brain (by making the neurotransmitter called acetylcholine)
  • Building the cell membrane (and facilitating the cell membrane’s function)

Choline is not readily manufactured by the body, but rather, most of it must be ingested in the diet.

Claims

Lecithin has been touted for its benefits in treating many health conditions, but there is very little evidence to back many of these claims including:

  • Healing skin disorders (such as eczema)
  • Improving sleep pattern
  • Improving athletic performance
  • Treating neurological disorders
  • Alleviating stress and anxiety
  • Treating dementia
  • Improving symptoms of Parkinson’s disease

Several studies have shown that lecithin may be beneficial in the treatment and prevention of various conditions, but more evidence is needed to prove the safety and effectiveness in many of these conditions.

Hypercholesterolemia (High Cholesterol)

A 2010 study discovered that soy lecithin supplements, given daily, in a 500 mg capsule, resulted in a 42% reduction in total cholesterol. LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) was lowered by 56.15% after two months of lecithin administration. The study showed that a daily soy lecithin capsule may be effective for the supplemental treatment of hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol in the blood).

Ulcerative Colitis

Ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory disease that affects the bowel; it is also referred to as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). People with ulcerative colitis were found to have less phosphatidylcholine—a chemical found in lecithin—than people who did not have the condition.

Phosphatidylcholine is a component of mucus in the digestive tract. This mucus is extremely important because it helps to protect the colon from inflammation. It forms an essential layer in the colon (large intestine) and small intestine. This colonic mucus protects against bacteria that comes from the stool.

Phosphatidylcholine (PC) is thought to be responsible for forming the protective “intestinal surfactant” or mucus layer. When the PC layer is defective, it adds to the development of inflammation of the bowel, which often leads to symptoms of ulcerative colitis.

A 2010 study found that lecithin supplements resolved inflammatory activity caused by ulcerative colitis and “may develop to a first-choice therapy for this disease,” according to the study authors.

Mastitis (Inflammation of the Breast Tissue)

Mastitis is a common ailment in breastfeeding mothers. Some sources report that lecithin may help to prevent clogged ducts in the breast that often lead to mastitis (inflammation of the breast tissue), but the research is mixed. Some credible sources, such as the American College of Cardiology report that “Lecithin has not been evaluated by the FDA for safety, effectiveness, or purity. [Therefore], all of the potential risks and advantages of lecithin may not be known.” The American College of Cardiology reports that women who are breastfeeding should not use lecithin without first consulting the obstetrician or other health care provider.

But, a Canadian resource, the Canadian Breastfeeding Foundation, recommends that women who have recurrent problems with blocked milk ducts take 1200 mg of lecithin, four times each day to prevent mastitis. Lecithin may work to decrease the viscosity (thick, stickiness) of breastmilk by increasing the concentration of polyunsaturated fatty acids. “It is safe to take, relatively inexpensive, and seems to work in at least some mothers,” says the Canadian Breastfeeding Foundation.

When the research is conflicting or inconclusive, consumers should consult with a trusted health care professional, regarding the safety and efficacy of a supplement. Some doctors may deem that the risk of taking lecithin is lower than that of antibiotics (mainstream treatment for mastitis), and that prevention may be the best option.

Alzheimer's Disease and Cognitive Function

Choline, a compound that is vital for building and transporting lipids (fats) in the body, is available in lecithin, which is a major dietary source of choline. Choline is thought to lend itself to improving cognitive functioning in people with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. But, a Cochrane review, last updated in 2003, did not find any evidence to support this theory. In fact, the review did not find any benefit of the use of lecithin for those with dementia. However, according to the Cochrane Library, a very small study did show some preliminary evidence that lecithin may help boost the memory, but not enough evidence is available to fully support the small study results.

Possible Side Effects

Although lecithin is generally considered safe for most people, it has not been thoroughly tested by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its safety, purity or effectiveness. Therefore, it’s important to consult with your health care provider before taking lecithin (or any other medicinal supplement), particularly for those who are taking prescription medications, other herbal or medicinal supplements, have a medical condition, or have allergies. 

Mild side effects of lecithin could include:

  • Increased salivation
  • Decreased appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Abdominal Bloating
  • Other symptoms

 Mild side effects should be reported to your health care provider.

Allergic Reactions

Although many people may be concerned about soy lecithin due to soy allergies, according to a report published by the University of Nebraska’s Food Allergy Research and Resource Program (FARRP), the risk of allergies to soy lecithin may be minimal.

“The soybean allergens are found in the protein fraction. The vast majority of this protein is removed in the soy lecithin manufacturing process. Soy lecithin does contain trace levels of soy proteins and these have been found to include soy allergens Apparently, soy lecithin does not contain sufficient soy protein residues to provoke allergic reactions in the majority of soy-allergic consumers,“ says the FARRP report. Therefore, many allergists reportedly do not instruct their patients to avoid soy lecithin when it’s an ingredient in food.

Although it is not very common, some allergic reactions to soy lecithin have been reported.

Symptoms of a severe allergic reaction may include:

  • Swelling of the lips, tongue, or face
  • Welts or hives
  • Trouble breathing
  • Constricting of the throat

These symptoms are signs of a medical emergency and require immediate medical attention.

Contraindications

Women who are breastfeeding, pregnant, or trying to get pregnant should avoid the use of lecithin unless specifically prescribed by the health care provider because there are not enough study results to support the safe use of lecithin during pregnancy or for infants who are breastfeeding.

Children should not take lecithin, because there is not enough medical research to back the safety of the use of lecithin for kids.

Dosage and Preparation

 Preparation

 Lecithin is available as:

  • A pill
  • A paste
  • A liquid
  • A capsule
  • A granule

Dosage

The right dose of any supplement, including lecithin, depends on numerous factors, including a person’s overall health condition, age and more. There is not enough scientific evidence to back how much a safe dosage of lecithin is for each of these various circumstances.

Regardless of whether a product is natural, it does not necessarily mean that it is safe. Many medicinal supplements have dangerous side effects, so always consult with the physician or other health care provider regarding the safe and effective dose before taking lecithin. The dosage and indications for herbal/medicinal supplements should be prescribed by a trained naturopath or certified herbalist.

Always take supplements according to the prescribing health care provider's instructions and follow the directions on the package.

What to Look For

It’s important to note that there are no regulatory agencies (such as the FDA) that govern the purity, concentration/strength or safety of supplements such as lecithin. There have been reports of natural health supplements sold that were contaminated with other drugs or toxic metals. Therefore, it’s vital to use caution when purchasing supplements to ensure a person chooses a reliable source and that the product is pure and safe. Make sure the product is certified organic and tested by a third-party entity such as U.S. Pharmacopeia, NSF International or ConsumerLab.

Some sources suggest that food, such as egg yolk, is the safest and most effective way to get enough lecithin in the diet, rather than taking supplements. 

Food Sources of Lecithin

Lecithin is found in many foods, including:

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

Other Questions

Is there any substitute for lecithin when cooking? 

When cooking, the easiest substitute for lecithin is egg yolk (provided a person isn’t vegan). Egg yolk is very effective as an emulsifier to keep the ingredients in foods from separating. One large egg yolk can suffice to substitute for a tablespoon of lecithin powder in recipes. Egg yolks are very high in fat content. Vegans or those on a low-fat diet can look in the health food store for a natural egg replacement powder.

 What does lecithin do in baking?

Lecithin acts to help ingredients mix together more easily and keeps them from separating. Lecithin is commonly used in commercial baked goods, mixed into cake batters, doughs, and more to keep them from becoming hard and dry after baking.

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

In the United States, most crops, including soybean plants, are derived from GM sources. To avoid soy lecithin that is from genetically modified soybeans, choose a product that is labeled “organic soy lecithin” or “organic lecithin.” Organic products are made from non-GM plant sources.

How is soy lecithin made?

Soy lecithin is commonly manufactured using chemicals such as hexane or acetone to extract the lecithin from the soy. Hexane is a harsh chemical that is commonly used to make varnish and glue. For those who want to avoid ingesting these harsh chemicals, look for a company that uses a steam process instead of a chemical process to extract the lecithin. Keep in mind that many processed and commercially made food products such as chocolate, cooking spray, baked goods, cocoa butter, granola bars, and more contain lecithin. So, to completely avoid the harsh chemicals used to make soy lecithin, it would be necessary to avoid eating most commercially processed food products.

Is there an alternative to soy lecithin?

Yes. Many organic products are made with lecithin that is made from sunflower oil because it can be extracted without the use of harsh chemicals, using a cold press method (similar to how oil is extracted from olives to make olive oil).

A Word From Verywell

Lack of medical research on the safety and efficacy of natural supplements is common, particularly in the U.S. This does not necessarily indicate that the supplement does not work or is unsafe. It simply means that consumers must do their own research and consult with medical professionals before taking medicinal herbs or supplements.

If you are hoping to get more lecithin in your diet, but you are cautious about taking supplements, it’s always an option to eat the food source, rather than take the supplemental form of the nutrient. 

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Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Stremmel W, Hanemann A, Ehehalt R, Karner M, Braun A. Phosphatidylcholine (lecithin) and the mucus layer: Evidence of therapeutic efficacy in ulcerative colitis? Dig Dis. 2010;28(3):490-6. doi:10.1159/000320407


  3. Stremmel W, Hanemann A, Ehehalt R, Karner M, Braun A. Phosphatidylcholine (lecithin) and the mucus layer: Evidence of therapeutic efficacy in ulcerative colitis?. Dig Dis. 2010;28(3):490-6. doi:10.1159/000320407


  4. American College of Cardiology. Lecithin. Updated December 15, 2010.


  5. Canadian Breastfeeding Foundation. Blocked Ducts & Mastitis. Published February 2009.


  6. Higgins JP, Flicker L. Lecithin for dementia and cognitive impairment. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2003;(3):CD001015. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD001015


  7. The University of Nebraska Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Food Allergy Research and Resource Program. Soybeans and Soy Lecithin. Updated December 3, 2018.


  8. Drugs and Lactation Database (LactMed). Lecithin. Bethesda (MD): National Library of Medicine (US). Updated December 3, 2018.


Additional Reading

  • University of Rochester Medical Center. Health Encyclopedia. Lecithin. Updated 2019.