Acetylcholine: Your Guide To The Neurotransmitter Acetylcholine

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Whether or not you care to learn its pronunciation, you’ll want to be aware of acetylcholine’s impact on your brain and body. From the early stages of fetal development to postmenopausal health, acetylcholine is an active contributor to the healthful state of the human body. Could a deficiency be impacting your wellness?

What is acetylcholine and why is it important?

Acetylcholine (ACh) is a neurotransmitter — an important chemical messenger that transmits information throughout the brain and body. Over 100 chemical messengers have been identified by scientists, although we don’t know exactly how many exist; ACh was the first to be discovered, in fact. Neurotransmitters play a role in everyday body functioning, like signaling your heart to beat and your lungs to expand. A deficiency in neurotransmitters (due to various causes, including diet, drugs, stress, and genetics) can lead to serious diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, so it’s important to be aware of your body’s potential imbalances.

Like many neurotransmitters, acetylcholine plays several roles in the body, including those related to learning and memory, arousal and reward, and muscle movement. In Alzheimer’s Disease, levels of ACh can drop by as much as 90 percent. As the disease progresses, the brain produces less ACh, while an increase in acetylcholine may help to delay or prevent symptomsfrom worsening for a period of time. Because of its important function throughout your system, you might want to pay particular attention to this neurotransmitter, the discovery of which earned two scientists a coveted Nobel Prize in 1936.

How can I naturally elevate my acetylcholine levels?

Eating foods high in choline (which is converted to acetylcholine through digestion) is a simple, accessible way to keep your levels balanced. Egg yolks are the most concentrated source of choline in the American diet, the Nutrition Research Institute reports, offering 680 milligrams per 100 grams. Milk, liver, and peanuts are particularly rich in choline as well. In the American diet, themajor contributors of choline typically include meat, poultry, fish, grain-based mixed dishes, dairy, and eggs. In 1998, the Institute of Medicine officially recognized choline as an essential nutrient, and the USDA notes that choline is “important for normal function of all cells and for brain development and function,” yet the average dietary intake of this nutrient is below recommended levels.

Choline intake tends to vary across groups as well. For example, in a 2007-2008 study, males consumed significantly more choline than females (with the exception of young children). Black males consumed much less than their white counterparts (for those 0-5, 12-19, and 20+), and black males 0-5 and 12-19 consumed significantly less than their Hispanic counterparts. The lack of choline intake in pregnant women is also an area of concern, as researchers report that choline “availability during pregnancy is important for optimal fetal development.” Great quantities of choline are delivered to the fetus across the placenta and lactation increases the nutrient’s demand as well since human milk is rich in choline. The Nutrition Research Institute notes that during pregnancy and lactation, “the demand for this nutrient exceeds the supply and stores can be depleted.”

Experts say that there is “an immediate need to increase awareness among health professionals and consumers of choline as an essential, but currently suboptimal, nutrient, and further, to highlight the critical role it plays throughout life.”

Since animal-derived products are at the top of the choline-rich list, vegetarians and vegans may be at increased risk for inadequate intake. Some vegetarian-friendly food sources high in choline include toasted wheat germ, peanuts, collard greens, brussels sprouts, broccoli, swiss chard, cauliflower, asparagus, and spinach. Also providing significant choline levels are green peas, cabbage, shiitake mushrooms, green beans, bok choy, crimini mushrooms, summer squash, miso, and tomatoes.

A study on mice also found that apple juice may prevent the depletion of ACh and reduce memory loss. Royal jelly, a creamy secretion produced by worker bees to feed the queen and larvae, contains acetylcholine, but due to its strong taste, limited accessibility, and lack of research, you may be better off sticking with traditional foods. A small study in Japan found improved red blood cell production, glucose tolerance, and mental health in healthy volunteers who consumed royal jelly for six months.

A 2009 report warns that due to “its wide-ranging role in human metabolism, from cell structure to neurotransmitter synthesis, choline-deficiency is now thought to have an impact on diseases such as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, atherosclerosis (via lipoprotein secretion), and possibly neurological disorders.”

A report published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that in choline-deprived healthy adults, 77% of the men and 80% of the postmenopausal women developed fatty liver or muscle damage, while 44% of premenopausal women developed such indicators of organ dysfunction. Ten percent of the adults developed fatty liver, muscle damage, or both when they consumed the Adequate Intake of choline. When they changed to a high-choline diet, this damage was reversed.

Some pharmaceutical options do exist to support acetylcholine production; these drugs, which are often specifically used to treat Alzheimer’s, work to boost ACh levels and may slow deterioration. Of course, considering whether or not such a treatment is appropriate for your health conditions is a discussion to be had with your physician. If you’re merely curious about ACh, having an egg with breakfast, some nuts as a mid-morning snack, a spinach salad with lunch, and some omega-rich fish at dinner could be a healthy way to work towards balanced levels of this and other important nutrients.