Lecithin is a generic term that applies to any fatty substance composed of fatty acids, phospholipids, triglycerides, glycolipids, glycerol and choline. Specific classes of lecithin include phosphatidylethanolamines, phosphatidylcholines and phosphatidylinositols. Lecithin is a common component in many types of plant and animal tissue. Dietary sources of lecithin include fish, eggs, milk, soybeans, cotton seed, rapeseed and sunflower seeds.
The French chemist Theodore Gobley first isolated phosphatidylcholine from egg yolk in 1846, although he didn't actually refer to it as "lecithine" until 1850. This term derives from the Greek word "lekitos" meaning "egg yolk." Gobley also verified the presence of lecithin in many types of tissue, including chicken and sheep brains, fish eggs, bile and venous blood. He used both chemical and mechanical means to separate lecithin from these tissues, and established the specific formula for phosphatidylcholine in 1874.
Lecithin is a source of choline, which is an essential nutrient. It is also a rich source of many types of dietary fat. Clinical studies have shown that lecithin may help maintain healthy cholesterol levels, supports healthy liver function and helps support the skin's ability to manage symptoms of acne. La Leche League, a nonprofit organization that distributes information on breastfeeding, also recommends the use of lecithin to support healthy milk duct function in breastfeeding women.
The most common reason for taking lecithin is to maintain a healthy cholesterol profile. Some people also use it to maintain a healthy amount of fat in the liver. People with mood disorders may also benefit from lecithin supplements.
Current research indicates that lecithin helps to maintain serum cholesterol levels for both healthy people and those already taking statins to maintain a healthy cholesterol profile. Larger studies are still needed to more clearly establish lecithin's role in cholesterol maintenance.
Lecithin appears to help maintain healthy levels of liver fat in people who receive parenteral nutrition, meaning they're fed through a needle in a vein.
Lecithin may be beneficial if you are concerned about your cholesterol profile. Anyone with a predisposition to heart conditions may also benefit from taking lecithin, which may help support healthy circulation. Lecithin may support against the effects of liver damage caused by a variety of toxins such as alcohol. Some people with poor short-term memory recall report an improvement after taking lecithin supplements.
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