What Is Acetylcholine And How Can it Boost The Health Of Your Brain?

By Roy Krebs


Table of Contents:

Do you sometimes have difficulty finding the right word or working out a math problem?

Do you often experience problems with your memory, lose things frequently, or feel your sense of direction has deteriorated?

If so, you may be lacking an essential neurotransmitter - acetylcholine. You’re not alone!

Research suggests that most people don’t eat enough choline - the protein that one’s body needs to make acetylcholine - to meet the recommended daily amount.[1]

In this article, we’ll answer the following questions: What is acetylcholine, and why is it important? We’ll discuss what causes acetylcholine deficiency and consider what acetylcholine does for your brain and body. We’ll outline the best methods of increasing levels of this essential neurotransmitter through eating choline-rich foods and including quality acetylcholine supplements in your stack.

Do you think your brain would benefit from a boost in acetylcholine? Read on to find out.

What is Acetylcholine?

What is Acetylcholine?

Acetylcholine - often abbreviated to ACh - is a neurotransmitter similar to serotonin and dopamine. Neurotransmitters are the molecules used by our nervous system to transmit messages from neuron to neuron as well as neurons to muscles.[2]

As we’ll see, acetylcholine is one of the most important neurotransmitters found in the human body as it plays an essential role in your brain, improving concentration, memory, and cognition as well as muscle function.

Acetylcholine is also one of the most common neurotransmitters found in the human body, and it was the first neurotransmitter to be discovered. This discovery, by Henry Hallett Dale in 1914 and later confirmed by Otto Loewi, was considered so important that these scientists received the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine in 1936.

Scientists don’t yet know as much about acetylcholine as they do about the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin which is reflected in its nickname “vague stuff” - although this name actually comes from the fact that it influences the vagus nerve in the brain.[3]

Acetylcholine is a chemical compound. Its name comes from the two substances that synthesize it - the nutrient, choline and Acetyl CoA, an enzyme.

What is the Function of Acetylcholine?

Cholinergic neurons are the neurons that contain acetylcholine - they are found in clusters within several parts of the brain including the:

  • Basal Forebrain - called the medial septal nucleus, nucleus of the diagonal band, and nucleus basalis
  • Brain stem - pedunculopontine nucleus, laterodorsal tegmental nucleus

Acetylcholine is such an abundant neurotransmitter as it plays an important role in many parts of the nervous system including the:

  • Parasympathetic Nervous System which is responsible for “resting and digesting.” Here, acetylcholine regulates your heartbeat, helps you digest food, and coordinates muscles for language and movement.
  • Central Nervous System which controls your brain. Here, acetylcholine helps with wakefulness and focus.
  • Autonomic Nervous System which is responsible for your organs. Here, it helps with adrenal functions.
  • Peripheral Nervous System which is responsible for carrying messages from your senses to your brain. Acetylcholine helps activate your muscles.

How Does Acetylcholine Work?

How Does Acetylcholine Work?

Acetylcholine acts on two families of receptors and each family has subtypes.

  • Ionotropic or nicotinic acetylcholine receptors - so-called because nicotine also binds to and activates this receptor. When acetylcholine binds with these receptors, it usually results in excitation of the neuron which means the next receiving nerve cell in line is stimulated to transmit information onward - it’s kind of like a mailman passing on a letter.
  • Metabotropic or muscarinic acetylcholine receptors - so-called because a substance called muscarin also binds to them. When acetylcholine binds with these receptors, the effect depends on the subtype.

Sometimes Acetylcholine has an excitatory response which means it causes something to happen; sometimes it has an inhibitory response as it prevents or slows down an action.

Whether the response is excitatory or inhibitory depends on which receptor it binds to.  At the neuromuscular junction in a skeletal muscle, for example, it is excitatory as it causes the muscle to contract. In contrast, in the heart it is inhibitory, slowing down your heart rate.

This is because in skeletal muscle cells, acetylcholine binds to nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, whereas in the heart, acetylcholine binds to muscarinic acetylcholine receptors.

Acetylcholinesterase breaks acetylcholine down into choline and acetate. Choline is then transported back to neurons to synthesize more acetylcholine.

Why is Acetylcholine Important?

Acetylcholine, the Brain and the Central Nervous System

Acetylcholine plays an inhibitory role in the central nervous system which means it slows or prevents an action from happening.

The way it functions in the brain is not completely understood but it is found in many brain neurons and appears to have an important role in memory, arousal, attention, cognition, and motivation. Acetylcholine is also thought to play an important role in linguistics and creativity.

Disruptions in Acetylcholine through a deficiency caused by illness, diet, or medications, may cause problems with memory.[4]

Acetylcholine and Neuroplasticity

In the past, scientists believed that the brain largely developed in childhood, but more recent research has suggested that brain cells continue to form new connections into adulthood and, crucially, have the ability to repair themselves when they are damaged through injury, illness or drugs well into old age.

This ability of the brain to change, adapt, and recover is called neuroplasticity and is important for the health of the brain, learning, and memory throughout your life.

Although there is a lot that we don’t yet understand about the relationship between acetylcholine and the brain, studies show that acetylcholine may promote neuroplasticity.[5]

Acetylcholine and Muscles

As well as being crucial for the health and function of your brain, acetylcholine plays an essential role in your body through the autonomic nervous system. This is the section of your nervous system that works without conscious effort causing actions such as your heart to beat or your eyes to blink.

While acetylcholine plays an inhibitory role in the central nervous system, it plays an excitatory role in the autonomic nervous system as it carries signals from motor neurons to your skeletal muscles - this activates your muscles. For this reason, acetylcholine is thought to be important for muscle memory, coordination, and mobility.

So, when you want to take a sip of coffee, your brain sends a signal down your nerve fibers to the neuromuscular junctions. Acetylcholine transmits the signal across the junction to the relevant muscles causing your hand to close around your coffee cup and bring it to your mouth to drink.

Some drugs may influence acetylcholine which leads to problems with movement and paralysis because this neurotransmitter plays a major role in muscle movement.

What Foods Increase Acetylcholine levels?

Foods That Increase Acetylcholine

Your body produces acetylcholine from the foods you eat that contain the protein, choline. The most common sources of choline include:

  • Beef Liver
  • Beef
  • Wheatgerm
  • Egg yolks
  • Scallops
  • Salmon
  • Chicken Breast
  • Cod
  • Shrimp
  • Brussel Sprouts
  • Broccoli
  • Milk
  • Peanut Butter
  • Milk Chocolate
  • Peanuts[6]

How Much Choline Should I Eat?

The RDA for choline is 425 mg a day for adults and it is difficult to do this through diet alone. It is thought that 90% of the population of the US do not consume enough choline.[7]

This is even more alarming when you consider that choline plays an essential role in fetal brain development and a deficiency may be linked to some cancers as well as fatty liver disease.

See related: Choline Deficiency - How Not Getting Enough Impacts Your Body and Mind

It is also troublesome that people with choline deficiency are often unaware of the problem. You may have a choline or acetylcholine deficiency if you often experience:

  • Difficulty with focus, concentration, and reaction times
  • Issues with finding solutions to logical problems (e.g. math)
  • Inability to find the word you need
  • Fatigue
  • Memory problems, including losing things frequently, or problems with your sense of direction
  • Lack of muscle tone
  • Cravings for fatty foods

What Causes Acetylcholine Deficiency?

Acetylcholine deficiency can be caused by not eating enough choline-rich foods. But some people have low levels of acetylcholine even though they eat the recommended amounts.

Studies show that choline can be difficult for the body to absorb and, due to genetic factors, some people need more choline than others.[8]

Some groups of people are more likely to be deficient in choline. These include:

  • Athletes - especially when taking part in endurance activities such as marathons[9]
  • Pregnant women - as women need more choline when they are pregnant for fetal development[10]
  • Postmenopausal women - as estrogen levels drop after menopause, and this plays a role in the production of choline[11]
  • People who consume high levels of alcohol - as alcohol increases the amount of choline your body needs[12]

How do you Increase Acetylcholine Levels?

If you think you need help keeping your brain functioning at its best, improving your memory, learning capacity and your ability to concentrate, problem solve, react quickly, and communicate effectively, boosting the amount of acetylcholine in your system could help.

It may be possible for you to increase your acetylcholine levels by increasing your intake of the choline-rich foods listed above, but it can be difficult to reach the RDA of 425 mg a day through diet alone.

Because of this, many people choose to include a quality acetylcholine-boosting supplement in their stack, such as Acetylcholine Brain Food.

The natural compounds in this product are associated with improved cognitive function and memory, including the ability to think quicker, achieve improved mental clarity, improve attention to detail, and stave off signs of brain fog.

See related: Brain Food - Science Says Eat These 17 Brain Foods For More Focus and Memory

Why Is Acetylcholine Important?

So while most people have heard of serotonin and dopamine, acetylcholine is not so well known despite the fact that it’s one of the most important neurotransmitters in the human body.

Acetylcholine is essential to keep your brain functioning at an optimum level, helping you to focus, react quickly, problem solve, and find both your words and your way.

Acetylcholine plays a vital role in the way you move, transmitting messages from your brain to your muscles.

Acetylcholine is made from the nutrient, choline, which is found in foods such as beef liver, eggs, and salmon, but it can be difficult to consume the RDA for adults of 425 mg a day through diet alone.

For this reason, many people use acetylcholine supplements such as Acetylcholine Brain Food to boost one’s levels of this essential neurotransmitter.

Have you benefited from boosting your acetylcholine levels? Tell us in the comments.


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