Choline: Uses, Benefits, Side Effects, and Dosage

Choline Key Points:

  • Choline is an essential nutrient that must be consumed through diet or supplementation to maintain optimal health.
  • Choline is involved in many vital biological functions such as maintaining the structural integrity of cell membranes, fat transportation and metabolism, cell signaling and nerve impulse transmissions.
  • It is estimated that 90% of the population consumes a diet deficient in choline. As such, supplementation provides a practical solution.
  • Endurance athletes may be even more deficient in choline compared to the general population as strenuous exercise has been reported to result in decreased choline concentrations within the blood which can negatively affect muscle contractions.
  • Supplementing with choline can improve race times, enhance focus, decrease fatigue, and promote faster recovery.
  • The recommended dose of choline that results in improved performance is 1-2 grams 45-60 minutes before endurance exercise.

What are natural sources of choline?

Previous articles have discussed how more common compounds such as caffeine, beetroot, and beta-alanine can improve endurance performance, but today we will take an in-depth look at the nutrient choline and how it may help you run longer, cycle faster, and recover quicker.

Despite being synthesized in the body in small amounts, choline must be consumed through the diet to maintain optimal health. 

Although eating a diet that includes meats, milk, eggs, and peanuts provides natural sources of choline, it is still estimated that 90% of the population eats a diet deficient in choline. 

In endurance athletes, this deficiency may be even greater as strenuous exercise has been reported to result in decreased choline concentrations within the blood.

For example, runners who participated in the 1985 & 1986 showed a 40% drop in plasma choline levels. The point is a decrease in choline can negatively affect endurance performance, and supplementation provides a practical solution.

Choline Deficiency

First, the geek speak explanation. Muscle contractions during endurance exercise are induced by signals carried along cholinergic nerves to the muscle fiber.

The concentration of choline in the body can influence the rates in which the neurotransmitter acetylcholine is synthesized and released.

Consequently, a reduction in free choline during intense physical activity might reduce acetylcholine release and thereby affect endurance and performance.

Intense exercise of long duration (like long distance running or cycling) relies extensively on the muscle contraction signaling pathway.  Simply put, adequate amounts of choline are needed to stimulate the release of compounds that allow efficient muscle contractions to continue. If adequate amounts of choline are not available endurance performance suffers. This can be summed up as:

Reduction In Choline During Intense Endurance Exercise = Reduced Acetylcholine Release = Inefficient Muscle Contractions = Reduced Endurance & Performance

The majority of endurance athletes want to do everything possible to optimize endurance performance.  The good news is choline supplementation can help minimize the drop in choline levels during exercise and keep you going stronger for longer.

Let's take a brief look at the benefits and research on choline supplementation in endurance athletes.

Choline Benefits

Choline can enhance muscle performance during exercise and improve stamina through its activity at a cellular level.

Choline supports communication with muscle fibers and promotes muscle recovery following repetitive motion, resulting in better overall training output.

  • Choline promotes and regulates proper metabolism for increased energy and endurance. Choline controls the deposition of fat, allowing the body to store it efficiently or tap it immediately as an energy source for muscle use.
  • Choline supports messaging between the brain and muscle fibers for more efficient and precise movements and improved coordination.
  • Choline aids in maintaining the nervous system, and delays the onset of fatigue during strenuous activity.
  • Choline also serves to protect the body’s natural pool of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide expands arterial walls, increasing oxygen-rich blood flow to exercising muscles. 

The Research On Choline  

Multiple studies have shown that choline supplementation before endurance exercise can help prevent decreases in choline levels from hard physical stress and improve endurance performance.

Research On Choline Supplementation In Long Distance Runners

Von Allwörden investigated the effects of either placebo or choline supplementation on adolescent runners (aged 14–20 years). The subjects performed cross-country races of between 30 and 60 minutes, depending on age. Choline supplementation resulted in an 18% increase in plasma choline levels with and a 54% increase without exercise; however, runners without PC supplementation did not deplete plasma choline levels.

In a follow-up trial, well-trained endurance athletes (aged 25–28 years) were running with a velocity of 12 km per hour for 2 hours. Subjects received either a choline supplement 3 hours before exercise or placebo. Plasma choline values decreased after 2 hours of running by an average of 55%. When supplemented with choline average plasma choline levels increased during three hours of rest. Physical stress lowered choline levels by 41%; however, final values were still higher than initial values. Lactic acid values with choline supplementation were lower in 8 out of 10 runners and time to recover was 12% shorter.

Finally, in a double-blind, crossover, placebo-controlled clinical trial ten long-distance runners received either choline or placebo 1 hour prior to and again after completing 10 miles of a 20-mile run. Plasma choline levels were reported to have increased in the choline-supplemented group, whereas they decreased in the placebo group after strenuous exercise. The mean run time was found to be significantly shorter when runners were supplemented with choline when compared to placebo, being 153.7 minutes and 158.9 minutes, respectively.

Research On Choline Supplementation in Cyclists & Triathletes

Ten top-level triathletes performed two sets of two-hour cycling exercise at an average speed of 35 km per hour. The participants received either a placebo or choline. Choline supplementation without exercise led to an increase in plasma choline concentrations of approximately 27%. Exercise without choline supplementation decreased the plasma choline concentrations in the triathletes by an average of 17%. When choline was given one hour before exercise, average plasma choline concentrations remained at the same level as the initial values.

Von Allwörden reported similar findings from a double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover pilot trial. Well-trained endurance athletes performed a cycle ergometer test for 2 hours. Subjects received either a placebo or choline before cycling at 1 Watt per kg body mass. Plasma choline values decreased after 2 hours of exercise by 38%. When supplemented with choline, the average plasma choline levels remained at the same level as the starting values. Lactic acid concentrations after 1 hour (break for taking blood samples) and after 2 hours of exercise were increased by about 15% without supplementation; however, choline supplementation led to 11% decrease after one hour and a 25% decrease after 2 hours of exercise. In addition, choline supplementation resulted in a more rapid return of heart rate to normal levels, indicating a beneficial effect of choline on fatigue and recovery during cycling

Choline Dose 

The majority of research agrees that 1-2 grams of choline taken 45-60 minutes before exercise produces the biggest improvements in endurance.

What Is Choline Bitartrate

Choline Bitartrate is choline combined with tartaric acid. Combining the two compounds makes it more stable and bioavailable in the body when consumed compared to pure choline.

Choline Side Effects

Higher doses of choline (greater than 1 gram) may produce headaches in some individuals until a tolerance is built up.

The Bottom Line On Choline Supplementation

Choline supplementation is an effective nutritional strategy to prevent exercise-induced drops in plasma choline levels, which are associated with reduced endurance performance.

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