What is choline? Its natural benefits, signs of a deficiency, and how you can boost your choline for optimal health, improved memory and increased resiliency.
So, you’ve decided to get back to the gym and finally make good on your promise to yourself to lose a few pounds, improve your fitness, and upgrade your health. If you’re already following a Paleo approach and eating a nutrient-dense diet, you’re on the right track.
However, one unsung water-soluble vitamin that you may never have heard of might make all the difference in improving fitness, strength, and the capacity to cope with stress.
Not quite a vitamin, choline is a key nutrient generally considered to be part of the B-complex group of vitamins. While it may not get the fanfare of more popular B-vitamins like niacin, folic acid, or vitamin-B12, new research is highlighting that choline may the gateway to better brain function, strength, and even increasing your resilience (your capacity to cope with stress).
Choline is used in a variety of key systems of the body, supporting optimal nervous system function, keeping your cell membranes strong, ferrying triglycerides (e.g. body fat) to the liver, and keeping your brain sharp.
Choline is also the building block for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which plays a key role in keeping your memory sharp and muscles firing on all cylinders. Incredibly, studies show adults over the age of 20 get only 10% of their ideal daily choline intake, leaving you well short of your best mental and physical performance potential.
Let’s take a closer look at how choline can benefit key areas of your health.
Can Choline Make You Stronger In The Gym?
Many of the positive adaptations you experience from exercise occur because of improved nervous system function.
Therefore, a great way to improve your strength and performance in the gym (and subsequently build more muscle and burn more fat) is to improve your nervous system function.
You might not realize it, but when lifting heavy weights, you don’t get stronger via hypertrophy (more muscle fibers), but rather, because of better nervous system function. Research shows that many key adaptations to training are neurological, making choline intake (and subsequent acetylcholine production) important for improving performance and power in the gym.
A recent study examined the effects of increasing acetylcholine levels on upper-body and lower-body strength. The athletes were asked to supplement with a specific type of choline called alpha-glycerylphosphorylcholine (or alpha-GPC for short), a precursor to acetylcholine, in the morning and evening for one week.
After only seven days, the group adding more choline to their diet generated significantly greater power during the lower-body exercise (i.e. mid-thigh pull) compared to the placebo group. (1) Building more strength in the lower body by performing squats, deadlifts, lunges, and Olympic lifts is crucial for increasing lean muscle and making you a fat-burning machine.
Can Choline Improve Resiliency?
It’s tough to maintain your energy and vitality through the winter months. The shorter, darker, and colder days are more taxing on your body, requiring increased production of the stress hormone cortisol to get you through your day. Also, long days at work and constantly being on the go also increase stress hormones and can leave you tired, sick and run-down.
Choline plays a key role in supporting your resilience or capacity to cope with stress via its impact on your brain. The hippocampus area of the brain is responsible for establishing your daily cortisol rhythm, as well as converting your short-term memory to long-term.
Stress damages the hippocampus and throws off your natural daily production of cortisol, leaving you struggling to get out of bed every morning (i.e. hitting “snooze” multiple times) or “tired but wired” at bedtime and unable to fall asleep.
How do you know if this might be affecting you?
If you’ve been struggling to remember things at work, where you put your cellphone, or what to pick up for dinner, these are all surefire signs stress is impacting your brain in a negative way.
Acetylcholine is one of the main building blocks for the hippocampus, so adding more choline-rich foods to your diet can help reset your daily circadian hormone pattern and ultimately improve your resiliency. Getting older and want to protect your brain? Choline plays a key role in fighting off age-related dementia and cognitive decline. (2)
Get More Choline In Your Diet
Your diet should always be the first place you look to ensure you’re meeting your vitamin, mineral, and nutrient needs. How do you know if you might be deficient, or have insufficient intake to meet the demands of your busy work and training schedule?
Common symptoms include short-term memory loss (i.e., you can’t remember where you left things), losing your train of thought mid-conversation, reduced reaction time, reduced appetite for exercise, increased cravings for fatty foods, irritability, mood swings, and fatigue.
Dietary choline is typically found in the form of phosphatidylcholine, a type of fat that has choline as its main building block. You’ll notice on the list below that a Paleo diet is a great way to get more choline-rich foods into your regimen.
Eggs are your best option to really boost choline intake. Each egg yolk provides over 100 mg of choline — another great reason to not be afraid of the yolk!
Another great option is organ meats. For example, a 3 oz. portion of beef liver provides about 250 mg of choline.
Here is a list of the best dietary sources of choline:
- Eggs – 110 mg choline per yolk
- Beef liver – 250 mg choline per 3 oz.
- Wild Salmon – 224 mg per filet (with skin)
- Pumpkin & sunflower seeds – 60 mg per cup
- Cruciferous veggies (e.g. Broccoli, Cauliflower, Asparagus) – 75 mg per cup
- Dairy – 45 mg choline per 8 ounces (note: pasteurization destroys 70-80 percent)*
It’s important to note that your dietary choline levels are linked to the rate of acetylcholine production, so ensuring you get enough choline in your diet is the first step toward upgrading your acetylcholine levels and building more strength and resiliency. If you want to quickly increase your levels in the short term, you can think about adding a choline bitartrate or alpha-GPC supplement for 4-8 weeks.
Choline is the unsung B-complex vitamin that plays a key role in so many key areas of your health. Getting fitter and building resiliency to cope with stress are two common goals for people to start the year. Incorporate more choline-rich foods into your Paleo diet this winter – via eggs, organ meats and cruciferous veggies – and lay the foundation for getting stronger in the gym, upgrading your memory, and increasing your capacity to cope with stress. There is no better way to kick-start your quest for better health and performance.
(This article originally appeared @Paleohacks)
Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, CISSN, CSCS
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