Lecithin is a phospholipid or fat that's needed in small amounts by all cells in your body. It's found in many animal and plant-based foods, but lecithin is also available as a dietary supplement. You can buy it at health-food stores as powder, granules, liquid or capsules. Lecithin has many medicinal uses, but it may also cause adverse reactions in large doses or with people who are allergic to food from which it's derived.
Lecithin is a major component of both plant and animal cell membranes. It acts somewhat like a gatekeeper, helping to regulate the flow of nutrients entering and exiting cells through their membranes and walls. It's also important for nerve and muscle function. Lecithin is produced within your body, but its building blocks are needed from dietary sources. All your cells contain lecithin, although it's particularly concentrated within your heart, liver and kidneys. Lecithin is a common food additive because it prevents certain compounds from separating. It's also an ingredient in many medicines, especially eye medications or others meant to stick to mucous membranes.
A dietary deficiency of lecithin or its building blocks is not considered common by nutritionists, although it certainly occurs in people who are malnourished. However, supplementing with additional amounts of lecithin has been linked to alleviating the symptoms of some diseases. For example, lecithin supplements are used to treat dementia, short-term memory loss, certain types of depression, eczema and some diseases of the gallbladder and liver. Scientific evidence for the benefits of lecithin is probably strongest for blood cholesterol control, as it’s shown the ability to reduce the amount of cholesterol that’s absorbed through the intestinal wall. Lowering blood cholesterol levels reduces the risk of many cardiovascular diseases. In addition, lecithin is a naturally effective skin moisturizer.
Potential Adverse Reactions
Lecithin is nontoxic and likely safe for most people, even up to dosages of 30 grams daily, because it’s readily processed and used by your body. At higher doses, lecithin can cause some relatively minor side effects such as diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, bad breath and increased sweating. A more serious concern is allergic reactions. Some people are allergic to lecithin supplements, especially those derived from soy. Other additives within lecithin supplements can trigger side effects or allergic reactions too. Signs of an allergic reaction include sneezing, runny nose, swollen tongue and throat, difficulty swallowing and shortness of breath.
Sources of Lecithin
Natural sources rich in lecithin include organ meats, soybeans, tofu, egg yolks, bee pollen, peanuts, cabbage, cauliflower and green beans. Lecithin supplements are usually produced from soybeans and eggs but also meat products. Be cautious if you are intolerant of food made with soy or eggs.
- Encyclopedia of Human Nutrition; Benjamin Caballero et al.
- PDR for Herbal Medicines; PDR Medical Staff
- Natural Standard Herb & Supplement Reference: Evidence-based Clinical Reviews; Catherine E. Ulbricht and Ethan M. Basch
Sirah Dubois is currently a PhD student in food science after having completed her master's degree in nutrition at the University of Alberta. She has worked in private practice as a dietitian in Edmonton, Canada and her nutrition-related articles have appeared in The Edmonton Journal newspaper.