Acetylcholine, a versatile molecule, plays crucial roles in brain function, affecting learning, focus, and brain plasticity. Dysfunction can lead to neurological and psychological disorders.
What is Acetylcholine?
Acetylcholine is a VIP neurotransmitter in your brain. In fact, it was the first brain chemical they discovered. It earned the nickname memory molecule because it helps us remember things, pay attention, and stay alert. It has even more jobs—it lifts your mood and helps manage stress, fear, and anger.
Neurotransmitters in our brain are usually labeled as either party-starters (excitatory) or party-stoppers (inhibitory). But acetylcholine doesn't like to be boxed in—it's a versatile player. Its role changes based on where it is and what kind of receptors are around. 
Acetylcholine isn't just a brain thing; it's an all-over-the-body thing. In muscles, it's like a personal trainer, getting things pumped up (excitatory). But when it reaches the heart, it turns into a zen master, slowing things down (inhibitory).
You might think this superstar molecule is exclusive to humans, but no! Animals, plants, and some bacteria and fungi have it, too.
Acetylcholine works with two kinds of receptors: nicotinic and muscarinic. They got their names after two substances that interact with them. Nicotine latches onto nicotinic receptors, and a mushroom toxin called muscarine connects with muscarinic receptors. 
What Is The Function Of Acetylcholine?
Acetylcholine is a versatile molecule found all over the body, doing various jobs.
In the brain, it acts as both a neurotransmitter and a neuromodulator.  As a neurotransmitter, it's key for learning, focus, and mental alertness.
Notably, acetylcholine also boosts brain plasticity, which is your brain's ability to adapt and change. 
It is also the primary neurotransmitter for the parasympathetic nervous system, which takes care of automatic tasks like digestion, breathing, and regulating your heart rate. 
When your fight-or-flight response kicks in, acetylcholine steps up to help return your body to a balanced state. It does this by dilating blood vessels and slowing down the heart rate.
Moreover, it triggers muscle contractions in areas like the intestines and lungs and stimulates glands to secrete sweat, saliva, and tears.
If acetylcholine isn't functioning properly, it can lead to various neurological and psychological disorders. These include addictions, Alzheimer's, attention disorders, and dementia. 
How To Increase Acetylcholine Naturally
Acetylcholine is mostly made from choline, a nutrient tied to the B vitamins.  Your body needs a good amount of choline to produce acetylcholine, but most of us don't get enough from our food. 90% of us to be exact.  The go-to foods for choline are egg yolks and certain meats like liver. Other animal-based fatty foods have some too. 
Plant-based options do exist but getting the daily recommended choline from them is a tall order. For example, you'd need to eat 2 cups of tofu or 6 cups of brown rice to match the choline in one egg. So, if you avoid meats and eggs, you might not get enough choline or acetylcholine. 
Now, if you're worried about eggs hurting your heart, don't be. Research shows that eating up to 12 eggs a week doesn't increase your risk for heart disease. 
If you're vegan and can't get choline from animal sources, that's when supplements can step in to fill the gap.
3 Kinds of Supplements That Increase Acetylcholine
You can't take acetylcholine directly, but you can boost its levels in different ways using supplements. These supplements can either help your body make more of it, slow down how quickly it's broken down, or encourage its activity. Anything that aids acetylcholine in this way is called "cholinergic." 
The top cholinergic supplements usually belong to one of three groups: those based on choline, herbal ones, or nutrient-rich options. Some of these are so effective that they are prescribed as medications. Let's dive into each type.
1. Choline-Based Acetylcholine Supplements
Choline is a nutrient that helps make acetylcholine and is found in animal foods like beef liver and eggs. Here are two supplements that boost choline or acetylcholine levels in your brain:
This is a form of choline your brain can easily absorb and use. It's considered one of the best options for increasing levels of acetylcholine.
Not only does it enhance memory and thinking skills, but it also slows down cognitive aging, showing promising potential in treating Alzheimer’s. 
In Europe, it's even used as a prescribed treatment for Alzheimer's. While the ideal dose is still under research, studies commonly use 400 mg taken three times a day.
Citicoline is naturally present in every cell in your body, especially in your brain. It's a precursor to choline and acetylcholine, meaning it helps your body produce them. 
Initially developed for stroke treatment, it's now prescribed for cognitive decline related to aging, dementia, and Alzheimer's. 
As a supplement, it has some pretty impressive benefits for the brain, including improving blood flow and encouraging the growth of new brain cells. 
It significantly boosts memory, focus, and attention. 
The typical dose for cognitive improvement is between 1,000 and 2,000 mg.
2. Herbal Supplements That Boosts Acetylcholine
Herbal supplements have been around for ages, offering a range of benefits for brain health, and some even help increase acetylcholine levels. Many are so harmless that they've traditionally been part of our diets. Let's dive into some of the herbs known for boosting acetylcholine.
Bacopa Monnieri has deep roots in Chinese and Indian medicinal practices, where it has been used as a brain tonic for thousands of years.
Classified as an adaptogen, Bacopa neither sedates nor stimulates but works to balance the body's internal state, known as homeostasis. It accomplishes this balance by regulating neurotransmitters like acetylcholine, dopamine, and serotonin. 
Studies indicate that Bacopa can counteract memory loss caused by anticholinergic drugs. 
In fact, it even outperformed the well-known smart drug Modafinil in memory, processing speed, and accuracy tests. 
These results make Bacopa an excellent option when dealing with high stress, insomnia, or anxiety.
Generally considered safe, Bacopa can even be given to children.
For best absorption, it is better to take it with meals. Just a heads-up, it may take a few months for you to experience its full benefits.
This herb offers a long-term, balanced approach to enhancing cognitive function and acetylcholine levels.
2. Gotu Kola
Gotu kola (Centella asiatica) is an ancient herb related to parsley and carrots and has been a staple in Asian diets and traditional medicine for thousands of years.
Traditionally, people used it to tackle mental challenges such as memory loss, fatigue, anxiety, and depression.
Known in China as the fountain of youth, this herb is highly esteemed for its potential to enhance mental well-being and longevity.
One of its distinct features is the presence of compounds called triterpenes. These compounds function similarly to Alzheimer's medication Aricept by inhibiting the breakdown of acetylcholine. 
They also act against the formation of amyloid plaques, which are found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. 
Contrary to what its name might suggest, Gotu Kola contains no caffeine and serves as a relaxant rather than a stimulant.
3. American Ginseng
Though not as globally renowned as its Asian relative, Panax Ginseng, American Ginseng (Panax Quinquefolius) is gaining traction for its quality and cognitive-enhancing abilities. 
Clinical trials have demonstrated that a single dose of Cereboost, a specific type of American Ginseng, can boost memory, clarity, and sharpness just a few hours after consumption. 
If pills aren't your thing, you can enjoy American Ginseng as tea or incorporate dried slices into your meals.
4. Huperzine A
Derived from a Chinese club moss (Huperzia serrata), Huperzine A is an extract traditionally used in China for enhancing memory. It ranks as one of the most potent supplements for boosting acetylcholine and is often recommended for memory loss.
Huperzine A operates by inhibiting the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, which breaks down acetylcholine. 
The substance is available as a standalone supplement and is often incorporated into various nootropic and memory-enhancing formulations.
Remarkably, Huperzine A is potent enough to be recognized as an approved treatment for Alzheimer's disease in China. 
However, it's worth noting that Huperzine A can present more side effects compared to the herbs discussed earlier. These can include digestive issues, anxiety, muscle cramps, and fluctuations in blood pressure and heart rate.
3. Nutrients For Acetylcholine Support
In this final group of acetylcholine-boosting supplements, we look at two key nutrients vital for acetylcholine synthesis—a vitamin and an amino acid.
Also known as pantothenic acid, Vitamin B5 is a member of the B-complex vitamins. Its name originates from the Greek word 'pantothen,' meaning 'from everywhere,' which is fitting given its wide availability in food.
Among all B vitamins crucial for brain health, Vitamin B5 uniquely acts as an essential cofactor required to convert choline into acetylcholine. 
That's why you'll often find Vitamin B5 added to brain supplements like alpha-GPC and citicoline.
While there's no RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) for Vitamin B5, a general daily dosage recommendation is 5 mg. 
Most good-quality multivitamins are likely to meet this dosage.
Acetyl-l-carnitine is an amino acid noted for its capacity to enhance alertness, focus, mental clarity, and mood.
As a precursor to acetylcholine, it shares a similar structural configuration, allowing it to bind with and activate acetylcholine receptors in the brain. 
Known for its fast-acting antidepressant properties, ALCAR is an excellent option for dealing with memory loss and depression. 
When looking for an ALCAR supplement, avoid the less expensive version, l-carnitine, as it doesn't readily cross the blood-brain barrier. 
Generally, ALCAR is safe but should not be taken with blood-thinning medications.
Safety And Side Effects
Many focus on boosting low levels of neurotransmitters like acetylcholine, but it's crucial to recognize that an excess can also lead to issues.
Excessive acetylcholine can result in a range of symptoms, including confusion, headaches, excessive salivation, muscle cramps, nausea, and frequent urination. 
These symptoms align with acetylcholine's roles in regulating skeletal muscle contractions and gastrointestinal muscles.
If you're considering supplements or other methods to increase your acetylcholine levels, start with a low dosage and gradually increase it. This cautious approach helps identify the optimal level that supports cognitive function without causing unwanted side effects.
The Bottom Line
The quest for improved cognitive function often leads us to explore various methods, from dietary changes to supplements.
Acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter integral to memory, attention, and learning, has become a focal point in this journey.
There are three types of supplements designed to boost acetylcholine.
Choline-based compounds like Alpha-GPC and Citicoline. Herbal options such as Bacopa and American Ginseng. And essential nutrients like Vitamin B5 and Acetyl-l-carnitine.
Each offers its own set of benefits, supported by varying degrees of scientific evidence.
As with any supplementation, starting with a lower dose and monitoring effects is advised. And remember, these supplements are just one part of a broader strategy for cognitive enhancement that should ideally include a balanced diet, exercise, and mental training.
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Cognitive effects of two nutraceuticals ginseng and bacopa benchmarked against modafinil: a review and comparison of effect sizes - Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effects (DARE): Quality-assessed Reviews - NCBI Bookshelf (nih.gov)