Phospholipids – How They Affect Your Health
By Lisa Murray RDN, LD
Lecithin is a generic term to designate any group of yellow-brownish fatty substances occurring in animal and plant tissues, which are amphiphilic—they attract both water and fatty substances (and so are both hydrophilic and lipophilic).
Dietary sources for lecithin will be in the fat containing part of foods and include egg yolks (an important source of phosphatidylcholine), milk, meats, poultry, fish, legumes, seeds and nuts and some whole grains, like rice. Lecithin is a “glycerophospholipid”– a mixture of several phospholipids, very roughly about 15% phosphatidylcholine, 10% phosphatidylinositol, 15% phosphatidylethanolamine and a remainder of other phosphatides (including phosphatidylserine), all in a liquid base of about 30% fat, a mixture of a variety of fatty acids.
Granular de-oiled lecithin has a higher concentration of phospholipids. Phospholipids are essential nutrients because although humans can synthesize some, we cannot meet all our needs this way and additional amounts are required from the diet.
Glycerophospholipids, like lecithin, are highly absorbable with greater than 90% absorption. They are hydrolyzed by pancreatic phospholipase and the body then uses the components (such as choline or inositol) in various ways or they are reesterified. However, of interest, is that almost 20% may be absorbed passively, without hydrolyzation, and incorporated directly into high-density lipoproteins (HDL). From HDL, they can be transferred into cell membranes.
Phospholipids are a key component of cellular structure, maintaining structural integrity while ensuring cell walls remain fluid so they can effectively regulate nutrients coming in and waste going out.
The use of lecithin or supplemental phospholipids and their effects on cardiac health have been extensively studied, showing highly beneficial effects on blood lipid profiles by significantly lowering LDL and raising HDL.
Phospholipids are especially crucial to the health of brain cell membranes and neurotransmitters. Phosphatidylcholine, phosphatidylethanolamine, phosphatidylserine, phosphatidylinositol and sphingomyelin represent the five most abundant phospholipids of brain cell membranes, and they are all present in lecithin. The terms “lecithin” and “phosphatidylcholine” are often used interchangeably because phosphatidylcholine is usually the most abundant phospholipid that lecithin contains. Phosphatidylcholine (PC) is the main phospholipid molecule in cell membranes and necessary for continuing growth, maintenance, and repair of each cell.
Dietary PC is our main source of choline, another essential nutrient we need every day. Among other things, choline is the precursor molecule for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, one of the most abundant neurotransmitters in the human body and involved in many brain functions, including cognition, memory and muscle control. Dietary intake of choline ranges from 300 to 900 mg a day, but our actual daily intake needs are still unknown. In addition to PC, lecithin contains phosphatidylserine (PS), which has specialized importance in the function of brain and neural cells. PS is able to revitalize memory, learning, concentration and even vocabulary skills—all those functions which can decrease with age.1
Gastrointestinal Tract Protection
Phosphatidylcholine, the major lipid in the protective mucus layer of the gastrointestinal tract, has been shown to exert an anti-inflammatory effect. Studies have shown that PC has an intrinsic anti-inflammatory property with beneficial effects for ulcerative colitis as well as providing protection against drugs like NSAIDS, which are harmful to the entire GI tract.
PC is also vital for normal liver function. Research indicates one of PC’s most beneficial roles is in the prevention and treatment of various forms of liver disease and toxicity, protecting liver cells from viral damage, reducing fibrosis and preventing cell death from drugs, alcohol and other chemical toxins.  We also know that choline deficiency can result in the development of hepatic steatosis or non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and that choline supplementation reverses this condition.
Currently, standard soy, non-GMO soy and sunflower lecithins are all readily available as sources for dietary phospholipid supplements. Ensuring a steady supply of phospholipids through diet and/or supplementation has been shown to be beneficial in preventing and improving many health conditions as it helps to maintain a vast array of normal physiological processes.
 D. Küllenberg,L.Taylor,M.Schneider,U.Massing. Health effects of dietary phospholipids. Lipids Health Dis. 2012; 11: 3.PMCID: PMC3316137.Published online 2012 Jan 5. doi: 10.1186/1476-511X-11-https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3316137/
 Treede I et al. TNF-alpha-induced up-regulation of pro-inflammatory cytokines is reduced by phosphatidylcholine in intestinal epithelial cells. BMC Gastroenterol. 2009 Jul 13;9:53. doi: 10.1186/1471-230X-9-53.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6278902
 Chirkin AA et al. Effect of polyunsaturated phosphatidyl-choline on lipid transport system in alcoholic liver injury. Addict Biol. 1998 Jan;3(1):65-70. doi: 10.1080/13556219872353
 Jenkins PJ, Portmann BP, Eddleston AL, Williams R. Use of polyunsaturated phosphatidyl choline in HBsAg negative chronic active hepatitis: results of prospective double-blind controlled trial. Liver. 1982 Jun;2(2):77-81.
 Sherriff J, O’Sullivan T, Properzi C, Oddo JL, Adams L. Choline, Its Potential Role in Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease, and the Case for Human and Bacterial Genes. Adv Nutr. 2016 Jan; 7(1): 5–13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4717871/