How to increase acetylcholine

May 18, 2015 at 8:50 PM

You might have heard the name acetylcholine but don’t know what it is, what is its importance, what are the reason for lack (deficiency) of acetylcholine, and how to increase the levels of acetylcholine in the body. If you are one of these people, then this article is the right fit for you.

What is acetylcholine?

Actually, acetylcholine is an organic molecule. In different mammals and birds, including humans, it acts as a neurotransmitter. A combination of choline and acetic acid makes this compound. The chemical formula of this compound is CH3COO (CH2)2N+ (CH3)3.

In the autonomic nervous system, acetylcholine is present. Both the functions of autonomic nervous system and peripheral nervous system are performed by this compound. Also, in the somatic nervous system, this neurotransmitter has a motor division. In the autonomic ganglia, the main neurotransmitter is acetylcholine. The heart rate is lowered by acetylcholine in the cardiac tissue. In the muscles of the skeleton, acetylcholine acts as an excitatory neurotransmitter.

Function of acetylcholine

Now let us look at the functions of acetylcholine. In both the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system, acetylcholine has a function. In both of them, it acts as a neuromodulator (a neuron using one or more neurotransmitters to control other neurons). The binding constants in the receptor are high.

Peripheral nervous system

In the peripheral nervous system, acetylcholine acts as a major neurotransmitter. On the other hand, the muscles in the skeleton are activated by the peripheral nervous system. In the muscles of the skeleton, acetylcholine joins with acetylcholine receptors. After that, in the muscle cells, the sodium ions enter. Muscle contraction takes place as a result of all this process. Acetylcholine functions very differently in the cardiac muscles. It stops the contraction of the muscles in the cardiac region.

Autonomic nervous system

At many places, the acetylcholine is released in the autonomic nervous system. At the pre and post parasympathetic neurons, acetylcholine is released. Also, in all the sympathetic neurons, acetylcholine is released. Other than this, it is also released in the sweat glands. It is also released in the sympathetic fibers.

Central nervous system

On arousal, reward and plasticity, acetylcholine acts very much in the central nervous system. The different sensory perceptions like focusing and waking up are also enhanced by acetylcholine. Different memory disorders, especially Alzheimer’s disease, can be caused when the acetylcholine producing area in the brain is damaged. The REM sleep is promoted as a result of acetylcholine. In rare cases, depression is caused when the acetylcholine in the body is damaged. In the central nervous system, acetylcholine has three pathways. The first pathway is the pons to the cortex and thalamus. The second pathway is from the forebrain of nucleus to the cortex and the third pathway is the septohippocampal.

Structure of acetylcholine

Now let us look at the structure of acetylcholine. In reality, acetylcholine is a polyatomic cation. A neurotransmitter system is formed from acetylcholine and the other neurons. Through this system, to many other areas of the brain, the axons are connected. From either the laterodorsal tegmental nucleus or the Pedunculopontine nucleus, it comes in the brain. From the medi septal nucleus and the basal optic nucleus, it comes in the forebrain.

On the M1 receptors present in the brain, the pontomesencephalotegmental complex takes action. Also, action is taken on the M1 receptors in the pontine nuclei, cerebellar nuclei, raphe nucleus, inferior olive and reticular nucleus. On the M1 receptors in the neocortex, the basal optic nuclei acts. Lastly, on the M1 receptors in the neocortex and hippocampus, the M1 receptors act. Other than this, in the striatum, the acetylcholine acts. By the interneurons, it is usually released. To different stimuli in the environment, these interneurons react.

Role of acetylcholine in the body

Acetylcholine is very important for the body. It plays various different roles in the body. Acetylcholine is quite beneficial for the brain. The skills of the mind, which are deteriorated with the passage of time, are protected by acetylcholine. Also, against neurodegeneration, acetylcholine protects the body. Some of the main roles played by acetylcholine in the body, have been mentioned below:

1. Memory and acetylcholine

In memory and learning, scientists have found that the Chlorogenic pathway plays an important role. A subtype of acetylcholine receptors, is blocked by scopolamine. When they are under a drug, scopolamine causes short-term memory loss. Also, some research has indicated that memory can be enhanced by acetylcholine and some other drugs. The potential of the membranes to get potassium ion is reduced by acetylcholine. This leads to the depolarization of the membrane. Due to this effect, the memory is improved. Also, the signal transmission in hippocampus is stopped by acetylcholine. Due to this, the old and the new memories don’t interfere with each other. As acetylcholine separates the new memories from the previous memories, the role of acetylcholine in the body can’t be denied. Due to this, the memories don’t mix with each other. Also, because of acetylcholine, the memory can be divided into clear segments.

In 1995, a research was published in which the researchers explained the importance of acetylcholine in memory (1). The study was done on rats. In rats, the researchers damaged the neocortex, which is responsible for the memory and learning of an individual. After this, the researchers placed grafts on the brains of the rats. The production of acetylcholine was resumed in the rats, in which the grafts were placed. The results showed that the memory rats was also improved. So, basically, by this study it was proved that acetylcholine is very important for the learning and normal functioning of the brain.

A study was published in 1999 regarding acetylcholine (2). The basic point made by the researcher in this study, is that balance of the long term memory during the sleeping and waking period, is affected by acetylcholine levels in the body. In the paper, it has been mentioned that, for encoding new memories, high levels of acetylcholine are needed. This is due to the fact that acetylcholine inhibits the signal transmission which interrupts the memory. For transmitting the signal, it is necessary that the levels of acetylcholine should be low. Another study was published in 2003, which proved that to keep the long term memory intact, low levels of acetylcholine are needed. In the research, the Chlorogenic activity was increased by the researchers by giving them a certain drug. The declarative memories were stopped due to this drug. However, this only happened during the sleep, and not during waking. Actually, by declarative memories, it is meant the memories which can be recalled at some time after.

2. Role of acetylcholine in diet

From choline present in the body, acetylcholine is generally made. According to Oregon State University, the daily intake of acetylcholine for men and women are 550 and 425 mg respectively. Phosphatidylcholine is the form in which choline is generally present in food. The foods which are rich in choline are eggs, liver and milk. Fish, broccoli and beef are some other foods from which acetylcholine can be obtained.

3. Role as a neurotransmitter

Basically, acetylcholine performs the role of a neurotransmitter. This mean that it performs all the functions of a neurotransmitter, the most important of which is sending different signals between the neurons. Acetylcholine was discovered in 1914 and was the first neurotransmitter discovered at that time. It is found in the sensory neurons and the autonomic nervous system. The muscles in the body are also stimulated as a result of acetylcholine. Also, during sleep, acetylcholine plays a role in eye movement. In the Botox injections, basically, acetylcholine is blocked.

4. Acetylcholine effect on muscles

When the input from the nervous system is given to the muscles, they usually become contracted. At a site known as the motor end plate, the motor neuron and the muscle cell meet each other. Nicotinic receptors are present in the muscle cell membrane. To acetylcholine, these muscle cells are quite sensitive. At the places of the release of acetylcholine, the receptor molecules are directed. Ligand-gated sodium channel is the class of this nicotine receptor. This means that sodium enters cells of the muscles when acetylcholine is connected to a receptor.

Due to sodium, the muscle cells around the motor end plate depolarize, meaning that there is a reduction in the charge inside and outside the muscle. More sodium enters as a result of depolarization, and this depolarization moves throughout the muscle cells. Due to this, inside the muscle cell, the calcium ions are released. The muscle contraction is caused by the calcium ions.

In smooth muscles, different type of receptors are initiated by acetylcholine. This receptor is called as muscarinic receptor. Calcium ions are released when the acetylcholine meets with this receptor. Due to this, the muscle cells are depolarized because different channels are opened. Muscle contraction is caused as a result of this depolarization.

Now let us look at the effect of acetylcholine on cardiac muscles. In cardiac muscles, muscarinic receptors are present. However, this effect is quite different from smooth muscles. Just like calcium is passed in smooth muscles, in cardiac muscles, potassium is passed. Due to this, the contracting of the heart muscles is slowed down.

Acetylcholine deficiency and the reasons behind it

When the acetylcholine levels fall below a certain level, it is known as acetylcholine deficiency. Due to a number of reasons, acetylcholine deficiency is caused. To know about your specific condition, the doctor needs to have a checkup first. The specific treatment depends upon many factors, like for how long the patient has been experiencing acetylcholine deficiency and to what degree are the levels of acetylcholine low. Depending upon how much acetylcholine deficiency is in your case, you will experience different symptoms. Some of the major symptoms of acetylcholine deficiency include bad listening skills, not having the ability to concentrate for longer durations of time, poor formation of memory and recalling and the slow processing of information. The reason that you experience these symptoms is that, in all these factors, acetylcholine plays an important role. Low levels of acetylcholine are caused if you don’t get it from different food sources. When the levels of acetylcholine in the body are low, to make free acetylcholine, the brain cells eat up the cell walls. This can cause more problems. Some mental disorders and even Alzheimer’s disease can be caused due to the deficiency of acetylcholine in the body.

Fatty liver is one of the symptoms of acetylcholine deficiency, in serious cases. Some other symptoms are also present along with it. Trouble in sleeping, nerve problems and increase in fatigue are some other symptoms of acetylcholine deficiency. In order to get rid of these symptoms, you need to get acetylcholine through your diet. When the acetylcholine levels in the body are normal, the chronic inflammation is reduced. The communication between the muscles and the nerves also become better in case of healthy acetylcholine levels.

Some of the people who are at risk of acetylcholine deficiency include high stamina athletes and marathon runners. Also, taking alcohol in diet regularly can lower the acetylcholine levels in the body. Also, acetylcholine deficiency is seen in people who are vegetarians. For these people, supplements are recommended. One thing is important to mention here and it is that it isn’t necessary that only these people are prone to acetylcholine deficiency. In general, acetylcholine deficiency can be caused in any individual who isn’t eating a balanced diet.  

The retrieving and formation of new memories is a big problem with acetylcholine deficiency patients. The reason that the memory of a person is lost with the passage of time, is due to the deficiency of acetylcholine. It is natural that, as a person ages, the level of acetylcholine gets low. However, if the levels get low before a certain age, acetylcholine deficiency is caused. Different complications can be caused by low levels of acetylcholine, like dementia.

Now let us look at the root cause or the main reason behind the low levels of acetylcholine. Diet is considered as a chief factor for low levels of acetylcholine. A balanced diet is very important for the body. Acetylcholine deficiency is caused when the diet isn’t a balanced one. Patients who rely on caregivers for their nutrition, especially have acetylcholine deficiency. The reason is that they can’t go for alternative sources. Acetylcholine deficiency needs to be checked in patients who get nutrition from their caregivers.

Some diseases like myasthenia gravis and Alzheimer’s disease can be caused due to acetylcholine deficiency. When the neurotransmitters in the body aren’t functioning normally, these diseases are caused. Disorganized thinking and muscle weakness is caused in these conditions. Also, with neurotransmitters, different medicines act, which can lead to acetylcholine deficiency. In such cases, you need to consult the doctor quickly and get your medication changed.

How to increase acetylcholine in the body

Now let us see how to increase the levels of acetylcholine in the body. For the production of acetylcholine, there are many sources. There are many advantages and disadvantages related to each source. To make better decisions relating to your diet, you need understand the type of acetylcholine and their sources. Some major sources, from which acetylcholine can be obtained, are mentioned below:

1. Lecithin

This is the most common source of acetylcholine. However, the fact remains that it is the least effective. Some foods from which lecithin can be obtained are soy products and eggs. Lecithin can also be obtained from some processed foods, including chocolates. However, in these foods the acetylcholine content is quite low. Research also supports that the consumption of lecithin increase the levels of acetylcholine in the body (3). This study was conducted on rats and it showed that in rats, the lecithin consumption increases the concentration of acetylcholine. Because it is the weakest source of acetylcholine, therefore, lecithin consumption doesn’t lead to an increased activity in the mind. So, if you want to see some noticeable changes through lectin, you will have to consume higher dosages of lecithin.

2. Citicoline

For providing the body with acetylcholine, citicoline (CDP-Choline) is a better source in comparison to lecithin. People with Alzheimer’s disease, especially the elderly people, should turn to acetylcholine in order to help prevent mental decline. When citicoline is taken in supplement form, it has direct effect on the body. It increases the cognitive abilities and passes easily through the blood, without any difficulty. Through citicoline, both memory and learning are improved. Also, the dopamine and noradrenaline levels are increased. Therefore, for brain health, citicoline is a beneficial supplement.

3. L-Alpha Glycerylphosphorylcholine (Alpha GPC)

One of the most beneficial source of acetylcholine is Alpha GPC. Research supports that alpha GPC is quite beneficial for acetylcholine (4). From different dairy products, alpha GPC can be obtained. When soy lecithin is purified, alpha GPC is produced. It is quite beneficial when taken in the form of supplementation. The dosage in the supplementation form shouldn’t be that high because alpha GPC directly effects the brain. Dementia and Alzheimer’s patient should take this supplement, as it increases the memory and learning. In general, it is beneficial for anyone looking to increase his acetylcholine levels.

4. Choline bitartrate

Perhaps the cheapest source of acetylcholine is choline bitartrate. Although it gives all the cognitive benefits through a proper dosage, still, it isn’t as effective and citicoline and Alpha GPC. Some benefits of choline bitartrate include improving short term memory, improving long term memory, increasing the attention and focus and controlling the mood disorders.

5. Phosphatidylcholine

This source of acetylcholine can be taken in the form of supplementation. It converts into acetylcholine and is actually a phospholipid. Through different food sources, phosphatidylcholine can be obtained by the body. Soy lecithin can be used to purify phosphatidylcholine and can be converted into supplements. Research also proves that phosphatidylcholine increases the levels of acetylcholine in the body (5). Because only a small amount of phosphatidylcholine converts into acetylcholine, therefore, as compared to other acetylcholine sources, it isn’t that much effective. Only about 12% of phosphatidylcholine is converted into acetylcholine.

6. Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALCAR)

A great acetylcholine supplement is acetyl-L-Carnitine. It increases the levels of acetylcholine in the body significantly. Unlike other acetylcholine sources, it doesn’t directly convert into acetylcholine. First of all, into a chemical known as acetyl-COA, it breaks down and then, to make acetylcholine, it combines with choline. One major benefit of this supplement is that it efficiently converts choline into acetylcholine. Although it is quite beneficial for improving cognitive skills, the main problem with this supplement is that it can’t be manufactured in the absence of choline. That’s why it is recommended to take this supplement along with choline salt.

7. Racetams

These supplements don’t produce acetylcholine themselves, but increase the effectiveness of the already present acetylcholine in the body. Another function performed by this enzyme is that it makes the body hungry for more acetylcholine. Thus a person seeks to increase the levels of acetylcholine in the body. However, when the acetylcholine levels in the body are already too low, racetams isn’t quite effective. In some cases, it is seen that when levels of acetylcholine in the body is too low, taking racetams can be harmful.

8. Acetylcholinesterase inhibitors

An enzyme which breaks down the acetylcholine in the body is known as acetylcholinesterase. For the proper movement of muscles and neurons, this enzyme is quite beneficial. Negative effects and reactions can be caused, in case the level of acetylcholinesterase in the body is high. The production of this drug can be controlled by anti-Alzheimer’s drugs. As nootropic also, this enzyme can be taken. One popular acetylcholinesterase inhibitor supplement is Huperzine A (get it here).

9. Food sources

When the body doesn’t get enough acetylcholine through the diet, supplementation is the right way to go. But a balanced diet is important to prevent the acetylcholine deficiency, in the first place. Some of the best food sources for acetylcholine include liver (chicken, beef and turkey liver), egg yolks, milk and dairy products and Turkey heart. Some other less efficient food sources of acetylcholine are bacon, grains, caribou meat, and cruciferous vegetables.


This article has informed you about acetylcholine, its role in human body and main causes of its deficiency. Furthermore you learnt about some important sources of acetylcholine, including various supplements such as Huperzine A. Although acetylcholine supplements are quite popular, you should always ask your physician before taking any supplements or medical drugs.

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Written by: Michal Vilímovský (EN)
Education: Physician
Article resources: See numbered scientific references within the article
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Published: May 18, 2015 at 8:50 PM
Next scheduled update: May 18, 2017 at 8:50 PM
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