Acetylcholine is one of the most abundant neurotransmitters in the human body in both the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. The name acetylcholine comes from its structure, as it is a chemical compound composed of acetic acid on the one hand and choline on the other.
Functions of acetylcholine
Acetylcholine fulfills many critical functions in our body, a large number of which can be disrupted by disease or side effects of, for example, medication use. A disbalance of this neurotransmitter can have significant consequences, just like the other neurotransmitters in our bodies.
Our body is constantly under the influence of external factors and has to anticipate constantly. Consider, for example, the food we take in, the air we breathe, and the medications we use. All these factors influence our hormones and neurotransmitters, and our health depends heavily on a healthy balance between our hormones and neurotransmitters. The same goes for acetylcholine.
In the peripheral nervous system, acetylcholine is an important part of the somatic nervous system. This system plays a stimulating role that leads to muscles’ activation, leading to the muscles’ contraction for action.
Within the autonomic system, acetylcholine controls several functions. It acts on preganglionic neurons in the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. Preganglionic neurons are a group of nerve fibers of the autonomic nervous system that connect the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) to the ganglia (nerve node).
The neurotransmitter is released by all parasympathetic innervated organs (organs with nerve endings). It promotes smooth muscle contraction, dilation of blood vessels, increased body secretion, and a slower heart rate.
Because acetylcholine plays an important role in muscle function, drugs that influence this neurotransmitter can disrupt these processes so that problems can arise in the motor system, digestion (intestinal peristalsis), and severe cases, even (temporary) paralysis can occur.
Brain and central nervous system
Acetylcholine also acts in various places in the central nervous system. It acts as a neurotransmitter and neuromodulator. It plays a role in motivation, arousal, attention, learning, and memory, among other things.
When medication and harmful substances – such as processed food, air pollution, etc. – disrupt the acetylcholine function, cognitive function problems can occur, such as reduced learning ability, memory loss, and ADHD-like symptoms.
Motor neurons and brain neurons
Acetylcholine is found in all motor neurons in our body, where it regulates muscle contraction. Acetylcholine is involved in all movements of the body, making it an essential neurotransmitter; from the peristaltic movements of our intestines to our eyes’ blinking,
This chemical messenger is also found in many brain neurons and plays an important role in mental processes such as memory and cognition. Severe acetylcholine deficiency has been associated with memory loss and later Alzheimer’s disease.
Symptoms of the acetylcholine deficiency
The symptoms associated with acetylcholine deficiency are mainly in cognitive function and motor skills. Indirectly, other body processes can be affected by a lack. Think of digestion because of decreased intestinal peristalsis. When deficient, increasing acetylcholine levels will yield several potential health benefits.
Alzheimer’s disease, in fact, an advanced stage of forgetfulness and dementia, is also associated with decreased acetylcholine levels.
Solutions of acetylcholine deficiency
The extra intake of the amino acid choline – the precursor to acetylcholine – can relieve the symptoms in many cases. Protein-rich foods can be a good source of choline, or one could consider a supplement.
Reduced cognitive function
A study of 2,195 participants aged 70-74 showed that participants with a higher blood choline level performed significantly better in terms of memory and learning tasks than those with a low level. (1)
While the intake of extra choline can help on the one hand, on the other hand, the choline can counteract the breakdown within the body. Supplements such as Bacopa monnieri, ginkgo biloba, and huperzine A are known to inhibit the breakdown and are associated with improved memory and brain function. (2,3,4)
Although research into such applications with supplements is still in its infancy, the nootropics market is growing explosively. Nootropics are supplements and other substances that can improve cognitive function. Of course, a lot of research needs to be done into the effects of these substances.
Can support mental health
Several studies suggest that choline, the acetylcholine precursor, can help treat various mental illnesses, including anxiety. An observational study with more than 5,900 participants found that low blood choline levels were associated with a higher risk of anxiety.5
Can support a healthy pregnancy
About 90-95% of pregnant women consume less choline than the recommended daily intake. (8) This is mainly because many pregnant women don’t eat red meat, a good source of choline.
There is some evidence that choline use during pregnancy can support healthy fetal growth and improve baby brain development. In fact, one study shows that supplementation with 480 mg or 930 mg of choline per day during the third trimester of pregnancy significantly improved the mental function of the baby at 4, 7, 10, and 13 months. (9)
Of course, a healthy and varied diet should always be the foundation. When symptoms persist, the use of a supplement could be considered. As with any supplement, it is important to consult with a physician, especially if you are on reds medication.
In general, choline supplements, such as alpha-GPC and citicoline, are safe for most people. They have, have few reported side effects, and are rarely associated with negative side effects. Of course, it’s important not to exceed the recommended dosage. Too much choline intake can result in low blood pressure, sweating, body odor, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and liver damage. (10)
Supplements such as Bacopa monnieri, ginkgo biloba, and huperzine A can also cause side effects such as nausea, stomach pain, diarrhea, and headaches. Also, these can interact with various medications. Always consult a doctor first if you are already using medication.