Acetylcholine deficiency has a major impact on learning and memory. Improve the level of this neurotransmitter with specific supplements and choline-rich foods.
You lost your car keys. Again.
Those “tip of the tongue” moments are happening more often than usual.
You can no longer do the simplest math problem in your head. Isn’t that what calculators are for?
You may think your bad memory is due to stress or your age.
Or that being a scatterbrain is just the way you are.
But it’s very possible you have an acetylcholine deficiency.
Acetylcholine is a brain chemical with a major role in the ability to learn and remember.
Having adequate levels is critical for having a decent memory now and for keeping your brain mentally sharp as you age.
If you suspect you have an acetylcholine deficiency, here are the symptoms, the causes, and how to boost your levels naturally.
Acetylcholine Deficiency Symptoms
Acetylcholine is one of the most abundant neurotransmitters in the nervous system.
It has a major impact on learning and memory.
It’s needed to turn short-term memories into long-term ones.
If you experience symptoms like these, you may be deficient in this important neurotransmitter:
- You frequently can’t find the right word.
- You struggle to do simple math problems in your head.
- You lose your train of thought during conversations.
- You can’t follow plots in movies and books.
- You can’t recall something you just read.
- You often misplace everyday items like keys, phone, and glasses.
- You find yourself driving under the speed limit.
- Your overall reaction time is slow.
- You know or suspect that you’ve got ADHD.
- Your sense of direction is poor and you frequently get lost.
- You have poor muscle tone and find it hard to exercise.
- You crave fatty foods.
Many of the symptoms of acetylcholine deficiency are typical of what we joke about as “senior moments.”
And, in fact, they are very similar to those of early stages of Alzheimer’s.
And that is no coincidence.
In people with Alzheimer’s, the levels of acetylcholine can be up to 90% lower than normal. (4)
Alzheimer’s drugs work on this premise and aim to keep levels of acetylcholine up by blocking its breakdown.
How to Increase Acetylcholine with Food
One of the signs of low acetylcholine is a craving for fatty foods.
That’s not a bad thing — it’s your brain’s way of telling you what it needs.
Low-fat diets have been a massive failure. (5)
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Not only have they not made us thinner, they’ve been a disaster for our brains.
One of the many ways low-fat diets wreak havoc on overall brain health and mental well-being is by contributing to acetylcholine deficiency.
Here are the best ways to increase acetylcholine levels with food.
Eat Foods That Contain Choline
The precursor to acetylcholine is choline, a vitamin B complex-related nutrient found mainly in fatty animal foods.
Choline crosses the blood-brain barrier into the brain where it gets converted into acetylcholine.
The best source of choline by far is egg yolks. (6)
Your brain will thank you if you skip the egg white omelet and eat whole eggs instead.
Other excellent sources are beef liver, shrimp, and scallops.
Virtually all animal foods fit the bill as good sources of choline — high-fat dairy products, fish, meat, and poultry.
This makes getting adequate choline a challenge for anyone following a low-fat or vegan diet.
There are some plant foods that are reasonable sources of choline: almonds, avocados, blueberries, brewer’s yeast, brown rice, cruciferous and green leafy vegetables, fava beans, peanut butter, tofu, and wheat germ.
But these foods are not as densely packed with choline as animal foods.
The daily adequate intake of choline is 425 mg for women and 550 mg for men. (7)
One egg contains 150 mg of choline, the same amount as 2 cups of tofu or 6 cups of brown rice!
Eat Plenty of Healthy Fat
Dr. Datis Kharrazian writes in his book Why Isn’t My Brain Working?:
“If the brain needs acetylcholine and is not getting it from adequate dietary fat, then it will break down brain tissue … from which acetylcholine can be synthesized.”
To put that in layman’s terms, your brain will eat itself if you don’t provide it with the healthy fat it needs to make acetylcholine. 😯
Healthy dietary fat is that important.
And don’t worry, eating fat won’t make you fat.
But it might make you sharper and happier.
Increase Acetylcholine with Tea
Tea is the most widely consumed beverage on the planet.
Black tea, green tea, white tea, and oolong tea all come from the same plant and are good sources of brain-protecting antioxidants.
And now there’s another good reason to drink tea — it inhibits enzymes that break down acetylcholine. (8)
Coffee does not have the same effect.
So consider having tea with your morning choline-rich eggs instead of coffee.
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Manage Your Blood Sugar to Balance Acetylcholine
One last tip for keeping up acetylcholine levels is to balance your blood sugar levels.
Hypoglycemia, insulin resistance, and diabetes can all interfere with acetylcholine synthesis.
The Best Supplements to Correct Acetylcholine Deficiency
While you can’t take acetylcholine directly, you can take supplements that provide its building blocks or slow its breakdown.
Since the choline found in food is a precursor of acetylcholine, it seems obvious that taking a choline supplement would be helpful.
But basic choline supplements do little to increase choline in the brain or acetylcholine levels. (9)
There are a surprising number of forms of choline-based supplements available — phosphatidylcholine, choline bitartrate, CDP-choline, and choline chloride to name a few.
But not all are equally bioavailable.
Here’s a look at the best alternatives proven to enter the brain and raise acetylcholine levels.
Learn more —
20 Memory Supplements That Really Work
Of all the choline-based supplements available, alpha-GPC (L-alpha-glycerylphosphorylcholine) is considered one of the best forms for raising acetylcholine levels.
It’s well absorbed and can readily enter the brain.
It shows promise as a potential Alzheimer’s treatment and is used to enhance memory and cognition. (10)
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Choline is critical for brain development in utero and during infancy, and it’s certainly no coincidence that human breast milk contains the alpha-GPC form.
Alpha-GPC supplements are usually derived from eggs or soy.
Another form of choline proven to increase acetylcholine is citicoline, also known as CDP-choline.
Citicoline is an impressive but underutilized memory supplement.
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It originally was developed to prevent strokes and is used therapeutically to treat a wide variety of serious brain disorders including age-related cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. (11, 12)
Besides raising acetylcholine levels, citicoline works by improving blood flow to the brain, protecting the brain from further damage, and increasing both brain plasticity and the capacity to grow new brain cells. (13)
Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri) is a brain boosting herb that’s been used for thousands of years in traditional Ayurvedic medicine.
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Compounds found in bacopa called bacopasides encourage the growth of new dendrites — nerve endings that brain cells use to communicate with each other. (16)
Bacopa has been found to be even better at improving cognition than the popular smart drug Modafinil. (17)
Huperzia serrata, commonly called Chinese club moss, is a plant that’s been used in traditional Chinese medicine to improve memory for hundreds of years. (18)
Scientists have isolated the main active component of Chinese club moss — huperzine A.
In China, huperzine A has been an approved drug for treating Alzheimer’s since the 1990s. (19)
Here in the US you’ll find huperzine A included as an active ingredient in many brain and memory supplements.
It works by blocking an enzyme found in the brain that breaks down acetylcholine. (20)
This is the same mechanism used by the popular Alzheimer’s drug Aricept. (21)
Galantamine is another plant-based supplement that works by blocking the breakdown of acetylcholine.
It’s derived from the snowdrop (Galanthus caucasicus), a plant with dainty white flowers that is a harbinger of spring.
We’ve included it here because you may come across it when looking for an acetylcholine supplement.
You can readily buy it over-the-counter.
It’s marketed as a nootropic that enhances brain function and promotes lucid dreaming.
But it is drug-like in its power and should not be your first choice for mild memory loss.
It can have some serious side effects and reacts badly with many medications. (22)
It is used to improve memory and reduce mental confusion in dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. (23)
In the US it’s been approved for treating Alzheimer’s and is available as both a prescription and over-the-counter remedy.
It’s not a cure, but it can slow down the progression of the disease.
If you are in need of serious help and want to give it a try, talk to your doctor first.
Anticholinergic Drugs: A Major Cause of Acetylcholine Deficiency
Drugs that block the action of acetylcholine are known as anticholinergics.
Anticholinergic drugs are a common cause of acetylcholine deficiency.
A surprising number of drugs fall into this category, both prescription and over-the-counter (OTC).
A good rule of thumb is that any medication that starts with “anti” is likely to affect your acetylcholine level.
This includes antihistamines, antidepressants, antipsychotics, antibiotics, antispasmodics, and antihypertensives.
The brain fog, mental confusion and memory loss experienced due to anticholinergic drugs can resemble symptoms of dementia.
It’s not just prescription medications that cause acetylcholine deficiency.
- Advil PM (pain and sleep)
- Benadryl (for allergies)
- Claritin (for allergies)
- Dramamine (for motion sickness)
- Excedrin PM (for pain and insomnia)
- Nytol (for insomnia)
- Pepcid AC (acid reflux)
- Sominex (for insomnia)
- Tagamet (acid reflux)
- Tylenol PM (for pain and insomnia)
- Unisom (for insomnia)
- Zantac (acid reflux)
Learn more —
Drugs That Cause Memory Loss (& what you can do)
OTC remedies can have long-term consequences, even when taken short term.
Seniors who use these drugs long-term (for more than 7 years) increase their risk of mild cognitive impairment and dementia fourfold. (29)
Taking acetylcholine supplements and adjusting your diet while taking anticholinergic medications is like driving with one foot on the brake.
If you take any prescription medications and think they are causing memory loss, brain fog or mental confusion, talk to your doctor about reducing or switching medications.
If you are taking OTC anticholinergics, make the necessary lifestyle changes to reduce your use and look for natural remedies instead.
Acetylcholine Deficiency: The Bottom Line
Acetylcholine is a major neurotransmitter responsible for memory and learning.
Acetylcholine deficiency symptoms are typical of those we call “senior moments” but can happen at any age.
If you have the signs of low acetylcholine, it’s best to address it now.
Chronic acetylcholine deficiency can lead to dementia and Alzheimer’s later.
You can raise your acetylcholine levels naturally with choline-rich foods and plenty of healthy fats, supplements that increase acetylcholine, and by avoiding anticholinergic drugs.