Phospholipids to Protect Your Memory and Brain
By Dustin Moffitt, ND
We are all living in a world where health conditions affecting the brain’s health are becoming more prevalent. This leaves us in a vulnerable place compared to that of our ancestors. Today we must take extra measures to protect ourselves from developing degenerative health conditions. While there are many elements to our health, today I will be addressing the topic of memory and brain health, and how phospholipids may potentially affect or improve them. There are five general classes of phospholipids. These are phosphatidylserine, phosphatidylcholine, phosphatidylethanolamine, phosphatidylinositol, and phosphatidylsphingomyelin. In this article we will focus mostly on phosphatidylserine and phosphatidylcholine.
Lipids are a key cellular component in our body. Phospholipids, a class of lipids, or fats, are especially crucial to the health of both cell membranes and neurotransmitters. Brain cell membranes are rich in two phospholipids in particular: phosphatidylserine (PS) and phosphatidylcholine (PC), with PC accounting for the larger percentage. In our cells the phospholipids line up in a lipid bilayer where the head of the molecule points outward and the tail inward, which helps to create a selectively permeable membrane to ions and most polar molecules. The cell membrane is selectively permeable and able to regulate what enters and exits the cell, facilitating the transport of materials needed for survival. Phospholipids are also crucial to brain health, as their release from glial cells helps to control the positioning of sensory neurons within the brain and spinal cord1. Glial cells surround our nerve fibers and act as insulation, kind of like the insulation over an electrical cord; they help guide direction of electrical flow and without them we would have electrical shortages and sparks.
How do phospholipids play into memory and brain health? As cell membranes and glial cells are so vitally important to our cells’ health and the way our nerves and brain fire nerve signals, without these we are truly in a world of trouble. As a matter of fact, phospholipid metabolism through metabolic markers is used to estimate cellular metabolism and aging in the brain cells2, and determine the amount of possible myelin loss3. There are also screens for autoimmune conditions involving either phospholipids, cell membrane parts, or even their metabolic breakdown products.
What are the potential benefits of phospholipids?
- Energy production. When oxidized, or burned for fuel, the phospholipids supply energy via glycerol and fatty acids.
- Protection of the gastrointestinal mucosa. Biologically active lipids, notably phospholipids (e.g., PC) and their metabolites (e.g., LPA) are able to enhance the barrier properties of the GI mucosa and to reduce the toxicity of pharmacological (e.g., NSAIDs) and natural damaging agents (e.g., bile acids, LPS), which induce tissue injury and disrupt membranes, leading to leaky gut4.
- Supporting cell membrane structure and function. As described above, Essential Phospholipids (Eps) supply the basic structural elements of every cell membrane in the body.
- Supplying choline for acetylcholine (ACh). PC is an excellent source of choline for the neurotransmitter ACh. More than 98% of choline in blood and other tissues is held in the form of phosphatidylcholine. Thus, PC serves as a “slow-release” source of the essential nutrient,  causing levels to rise for up to 12 hours after ingestion.
- Energy storage. Fatty acids and glycerol that are not oxidized may be stored as fat; a process called lipogenesis. Stored body fats provide a ready source of potential energy.
- Prostaglandin production. The body uses linoleic acid, one of the fatty acids in EPs, to make prostaglandins, a valuable family of signaling molecules. Prostaglandins also help to cause inflammation, pain and fever, which are needed in the healing process. Prostaglandins are involved in regulating the contraction and relaxation of the muscles in the gut and the airways.
- Emulsification of fat and bile. In the GI tract, phospholipids aid digestion by emulsifying dietary fats and bile produced by the liver.
- Aid in blood clotting. EPs help modulate the aggregation of erythrocytes (red blood cells) and clotting agents called platelets.
- Increasing cholesterol solubility. By increasing the solubility of cholesterol, EPs decrease cholesterol’s ability to promote atherosclerosis. PC also aids in lowering cholesterol levels5, removing cholesterol from tissue deposits, and inhibiting platelet aggregation6.
- Antioxidant protection. Studies in animals demonstrate that PC has potent antioxidant activity, which can protect against one of the most important factors promoting body aging – oxygen free radical damage7. By this and other mechanisms, PC protects the body against a wide variety of adverse drug effects and other chemical toxins. The high content of linoleic acid in phosphatidylcholine may be responsible for much of its antioxidant benefit.
How does protection from leaky gut help the brain health?
There is something called the gut-brain axis (GBA), in our body where the brain and GI tract constantly communicate with each other by sending signals. Many of these signals involve both initiation of inflammation and halting markers. With excessive inflammation initiated in the brain, we can lead to a brain on fire syndrome, or “leaky brain”, which mostly translates to slowed mental ability, increased brain disease (e.g. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or ALS). As the literature involving the GBA and gut biome evolves we are learning far more about the impact that our gut bacteria have on our brain health and immune system. Studies have shown that an estimated 90% of our serotonin  is made in the GI tract and that 60-80% of our immune system is in the gut.
We have only begun to scratch the surface of what is beneficial to our health, and particularly our brain health. Phospholipids play a part in our brain health, specifically in regulating our cholesterol, inflammation, and gut health. Therefore, ensuring a steady supply of PS and PC through diet and supplementation can help to mitigate age-related cognitive decline and illnesses.
Food Sources of Phosphatylcholine:
Food Sources of Phosphatyldserine:
Dr. Moffitt is a doctor of naturopathic medicine. He spent five years working with the community to teach nutrition and wellness with the Food as Medicine Institute. While practicing in Oregon, Dr. Moffitt worked alongside acupuncturists, massage therapists, and chiropractors as a primary care physician. He specializes in regenerative injection techniques, pain management, sports rehabilitation, chronic illness, functional medicine, and weight loss. He is currently accepting new patients at the Riordan Clinic, Hays location.
- “Glial cells use lipids to direct neuron organization in the spinal cord.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 August 2015. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/08/150827154239.htm>.
- Gaiti A, Sitkievicz D, Brunetti M, Porcellati G. Phospholipid metabolism in neuronal and glial cells during aging. Neurochem Res. 1981;6(1):13-22.
- Grigoletto J, Pukaß K, Gamliel A, et al. Higher levels of myelin phospholipids in brains of neuronal α-Synuclein transgenic mice precede myelin loss. Acta Neuropathol Commun. 2017;5(1):37.
- Jäger P. Letter to the editor: Selection bias not discussed concerning the article “PTSD of rape after IS (Islamic State) captivity” by J. I. Kizilhan, published in: Archives of Women’s Mental Health 2018 Oct; 21(5):517-524. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00737-018-0824-3. Epub 2018 Mar 10. Arch Womens Ment Health. 2019
- Navder KP, Baraona E, Lieber CS. Polyenylphosphatidylcholine decreases alcoholic hyperlipemia without affecting the alcohol-induced rise of HDL-cholesterol. Life Sci. 1997;61:1907-1914.
- Brook JG, Linn S, Aviram M. Dietary soya lecithin decreases plasma triglyceride levels and inhibits collagen- and ADP-induced platelet aggregation. Biochem Med Metab Biol. 1986;35:31-39.
- Simpson BN, Kim M, Chuang YF, et al. Blood metabolite markers of cognitive performance and brain function in aging. J Cereb Blood Flow Metab. 2016;36(7):1212-23.
- Mawe GM, Hoffman JM. Serotonin signaling in the gut–functions, dysfunctions and therapeutic targets. Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2013;10(8):473-86.