Choline is often included in pre workout supplements for its ability to improve mental focus and cognitive function.
Back in 1998, choline was deemed an “essential nutrient” in humans (by the Food & Nutrition Board of the National Academies of Medicine) due to the important role it plays within the body, particularly with regards to liver health. The word “essential” is used because the body is incapable of creating this nutrient by itself, so we must consume it as part of our diet (or via supplementation). (1)
So what does it actually do?
Well, from a performance standpoint the main thing you need to know about choline is that it assists in the formation of acetylcholine, a.k.a. the “learning” neurotransmitter.
This is a chemical which is released from nerve endings to signal your muscles to contract.
Studies show that increased acetylcholine levels can improve muscle contraction force as well as the mind/muscle connection, and there is evidence to suggest that prolonged exercise can severely deplete the body’s natural reserves, so it seems to make perfect sense that consuming extra acetylcholine (by taking a supplement containing choline) will lead to improved training performance… (2, 3)
… or so we thought!
Unfortunately, this is where real life kicks us in the balls and says, “YOU KNOW NOTHING!”
Let’s get into it.
The hype behind choline started back in 2013, when a group of Spanish researchers conducting a 12 week study in rodents found that the animals receiving choline had significantly better attention, and were able to learn new tasks much quicker than those who did not receive choline. (4)
Supplement companies often cite this study when discussing the benefits of choline as a cognitive booster, and it began to make its way into pre workout supplements as a result of this link.
However, it’s worth noting that all human trials have failed to replicate these results, and that the current body of research (in humans) is somewhat of a “mixed bag” at best.
It seems that choline supplementation – even in high doses – doesn’t have the same effect on humans as it does on rats. (5, 6, 7)
That’s not to say it’s utterly useless, of course, it’s just that more research is needed before we can dare to consider it an important pre workout ingredient on a par with the likes of creatine or citrulline.
One thing we DO know for sure, though, is that choline supplementation appears to be quite effective in young people (children and adolescents). In a March 2020 review published in the Journal of Neurodevelopment Disorders, researchers followed up on a trial which had been performed four years previously, noting that the people who received choline in that study now displayed significantly higher non-verbal intelligence, higher working memory ability, and better verbal memory. (8)
Choline For Liver Health?
Now we’re getting to the REAL science behind choline.
You see, despite the frequent links it receives towads cognitive function and muscle building, it appears choline is best used for achieving optimal liver health.
This was first discovered way back in the 1930s when researchers found that choline deficiency causes fatty liver disease in dogs and rats, and that these issues were resolved when choline was re-introduced to the diet. This was put to the test on humans in the mid-1980s, and once again choline resolved the issues. These findings have since been re-confirmed in further studies, so this is a supplement which possesses some interesting benefits when it comes to optimizing liver health.. (9, 10, 11, 12)
Unfortunately, a 2018 meta-analysis published in Nutrition Today Journal concluded that the vast majority of Americans consume nowhere near the recommended daily dose of choline to unlock any results from it (see below).
Which Foods Are High In Choline?
- Chicken liver (170g = 494mg)
- Salmon (170g = 374mg)
- Eggs (1 large = 147mg)
- Shitake mushrooms (1/2 cup = 58mg)
- Chicken broilers (170g = 112mg)
- Milk (200ml = 35mg)
- Almonds (30g = 15mg)
Which Supplements Work Well With Choline?
Let’s talk about Huperzine A.
It presents an interesting proposition – you see, despite having zero training benefits on its own, it could be a potentially useful tag team partner for choline. (13)
When we supplement with choline we do so with the aim of increasing acetylcholine. Meanwhile, one of the key benefits of supplementing with Huperzine A is that it decreases the breakdown of acetylcholine. This combination appears to be a match made in heaven (an increase in production coupled with a decrease in breakdown!), but more studies are needed in order to confirm whether it’s as effective in the gym as it looks on paper. (14)
How To Use Choline For Maximum Results
Right now choline presents an interesting conundrum.
I mean, we know HOW it should work…
… and we know WHY it should work…
… but there’s simply not enough research showing that it DOES work.
In fact, there’s research showing it makes very little difference at all. Heck, a 2018 review paper on optimal nutrition supplements for the brain didn’t even consider it as a potential option. (15)
So until more studies are available to cement its reputation as a truly effective performance booster, I would have you consider that choline is nothing more than a potentially useful ‘extra’ for those of you who’d like to cover all the bases.
That said, if you do wish to use choline here is how to do so. There are several different forms of choline to choose from:
- Choline bitartrate
- Choline chloride
- Choline dihydrogen citrate
- Alpha GPC (alpha-glycerol phosphoryl choline)
I recommend Alpha GPC, because this is the premium blend of choline which will yield the highest results from the smallest possible dose. That may not seem like a big deal yet, but seeing as higher doses of choline usually cause headaches it would be sensible to shrink the dose as much as possible (or split it up).
In terms of the optimal dose, aim for 500-1500mg per day.
- Wallace T. C., et al. Choline: The Underconsumed and Underappreciated Essential Nutrient. Nutrition Today (2018).
- Sam C, et al. Physiology, Acetylcholine. StatPearls Publishing (2022).
- Conlay L. A., et al. Exercise and neuromodulators: choline and acetylcholine in marathon runners. Int J Sports Med (1992).
- Moreno H., et al. Chronic dietary choline supplementation modulates attentional change in adult rats. Behave Brain Res (2013).
- Naber M., et al. Improved human visuomotor performance and pupil constriction after choline supplementation in a placebo-controlled double-blind study. Sci Rep (2015).
- Warber J. P., et al. The effects of choline supplementation on physical performance. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab (2000)
- Deuster P. A., et al. Choline ingestion does not modify physical or cognitive performance. Mil Med (2002).
- Wozniak J. R., et al. Four-year follow-up of a randomized controlled trial of choline for neurodevelopment in fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. J Neuro Dev Disorders (2020).
- Caudill M. A., et al. Folate, choline, vitamin B12, and vitamin B6 (chapter 25). Biochemical, Physiological, and Molecular Aspects of Human Nutrition (2013).
- Buchman A. L., et al. Choline deficiency causes reversible hepatic abnormalities in patients receiving parenteral nutrition: proof of a human choline requirement: a placebo-controlled trial. JPEN J Parenter Enteral Nutr (2001).
- Zeisel S. H., et al. Choline, an essential nutrient for humans. FASEB J (1991).
- da Costa K., et al. Elevated serum creatine phosphokinase in choline-deficient humans: mechanistic studies in C2C12 mouse myoblasts. Am J Clin Nutr (2004).
- Wessinger C. M., et al. Effect of Huperzine A on Cognitive Function and Perception of Effort during Exercise: A Randomized Double-Blind Crossover Trial. Int J Exerc Sci (2021).
- Li Y, et al. Pharmacokinetics of huperzine A following oral administration to human volunteers. Eur J Metab Pharmacokinet (2007).
- Meeusen R., et al. Nutritional Supplements and the Brain. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab (2018).