Niacin Adventures: Part 1 - Nature's Prozac

Next article in this series: Niacin Adventures Part 2: Why Raw Food Diets Might Work For Some People

Back in January, I promised a series of articles based on some experimentation I was doing with Niacin, or Vitamin B3 (the Nicotinic acid form).

So here’s the first post I’m going to make as a result of that research. (I like nutritional experimentation – I can do it at home, and don’t need a lab or a license).

A Little Background

Niacin has been added to food since the 1930s to combat the disease Pellagra, caused by Niacin deficiency. (Typically this disease hits countries with a heavy corn-based diet who don’t mix the corn with ash when cooking it, which releases the niacin from its bound form).

It’s found naturally in the husks of seeds such as brown rice, and is also synthesized by the body from Tryptophan. It takes 60mg of Tryptophan to make 1mg of Niacin, and the recommended daily does is between 2 and 15mg.

An average chicken breast (about 1lb, or 16oz) contains about 108mg of Tryptophan.

Now, your body uses most of the Tryptophan (about 93%) for other things. About 7% of it is available to be converted to Serotonin, and Niacin. (These figures may be wrong – I read the paper a while back and can’t find it right now, but they’re in the ballpark).

The pathways work like this:

Tryptophan + Vitamin B6 –> Niacin

Tryptophan + Tryptophan Hydroxylase –> 5-HTP; 5-HTP + 5-HTP decarboxylase –> Serotonin; Serotonin eventually becomes Melatonin.

Now, there’s a switch here. Your body needs Niacin more than it needs Serotonin. If you’re Niacin deficient, then your body will convert more of the Tryptophan to Niacin, in order to get the right amount. (The two biosynthesis pathways compete, and the Niacin one is stronger).

What this means for Your Brain

Simply put, if you’re not getting enough Niacin in your diet, you will end up being deficient in Serotonin. And Melatonin. So you’ll be depressed, and will have trouble sleeping.

What are our foods fortified with? Typically, it appears to be not Niacin, but Niacinamide. There are two forms of Niacin; one is Nicotinic Acid, and the other is Niacinamide. Presumably because it’s cheaper, or more stable, the niacinamide form is preferred as an additive in cereals and flour. In fact, the USDA requires that food manufacturers use either form – not just nicotinic acid.

Now this is the really important part – Niacinamide does NOT trigger the switch in the pathways. It’ll stop you from getting Pellagra, sure. But it won’t flip the switch to say “hey, you’ve got enough Niacin – let’s start making Serotonin instead.”

So your body will carry on trying to convert Tryptophan into Niacin, and use it all up, leaving you with a somewhat lower amount of Serotonin in your system (and Vitamin B6, as this is used up in the conversion process).

How do you get around this?

Simple. Start taking the nicotinic acid form, along with Tryptophan. This works much better than St. John’s Wort or a prescription SSRI (at least, in my experience).

Why does it work better?

Your body can regulate the conversion process. It can limit the amount of serotonin in your system, and target the results. What’s more, your brain directly uses the higher amount of Tryptophan and converts it to Serotonin inside your brain. Which is much better than SSRIs which can have nasty effects on the Serotonin producing cells in your gut.

(Your gut has its own, entirely separate brain to control digestion, a medical fact that was almost lost for about 100 years, but that’s a story for another time).

What about 5-HTP? Why not just use that?

5-HTP is an intermediate step in the production of Serotonin.

But your body doesn’t regulate its conversion to Serotonin. It’s not limited, other than by the amount of 5-HTP decarboxylase in your system.

This means that you can get Serotonin overload. What’s more, most of the conversion will happen in your body – not your brain. Before you even get close to a therapeutic amount, you’ll start getting the shakes, and will probably vomit. Sure, some of it will make it into the brain – but it’ll also be floating around your body. (And that can cause heart issues, so don’t do it!).

So What Should I Take?

Before I go to bed, I personally am taking 1500mg of L-Tryptophan, along with 300mg of Nicotinic Acid. (Be VERY careful to get the Nicotinic acid form of Niacin – it’s often hard to tell, and the most clearly labeled form is SolarRay’s brand). I also take about 250mg of B6 (which in some studies helps the brain convert the Tryptophan into Serotonin, which is confusing, as B6 is involved in the synthesis of Niacin), and 100mg of B1 (because I drink occasionally, and eat a lot of sugary foods).

The effects come on within about 15 minutes, and I’m no longer depressed or anxious at all, and get a very good night’s sleep.

I occasionally try this mix during the day, and it works well then too. There’s some flushing that occurs (skin redness & itching), but that goes away over time and lessens over the course of a few weeks.

If you try this out, be careful NOT to take more than 1500mg of Niacin per day. For safety’s sake, keep it below 1000mg. And DON’T mix it with SSRIs, or you risk getting too much Serotonin – which is also bad.

A Call for Research

And here’s the important thing:

Can we please do a study to lock down the exact mechanism of the switching pathway to determine exactly how Nicotinic acid supplementation switches production of Niacin to production of Serotonin in the body?

If we do this study, we can probably help the millions of people around the world with depression by mandating a switch from Niacinamide fortification of foods to Nicotinic Acid supplementation (or a 50-50 mix) in foods.

We beat Pellagra. We can beat depression too.

Disclaimer: As ever, I’m not a medical doctor, and don’t claim to be one. Use this information at your own risk, and consult your physician before proceeding. I can’t be held responsible for any bad side effects you may experience by following this advice. Nutritional supplements are effectively drugs, and should be treated as such.

About the author

Simon Cooke is an occasional video game developer, ex-freelance journalist, screenwriter, film-maker, musician, and software engineer in Seattle, WA.

The views posted on this blog are his and his alone, and have no relation to anything he's working on, his employer, or anything else and are not an official statement of any kind by them (and barely even one by him most of the time).

Archived Wordpress comments
Russell wrote on Friday, June 26, 2009:

Great post! I would be very interested in reading the original literature you mention having read. Do please follow up if you find the original paper.

In the past I had been prescribed Lexapro(an SSRI) as a treatment for IBS and I noticed it also helped with depression and social anxiety. I was going to ask my doctor to renew my prescription next week, more so as a remedy for depression than for IBS. However I'm thinking about using this combination of nicotinic acid and tryptophan as an alternative now.

Simon Cooke wrote on Friday, June 26, 2009:

PLEASE be very careful about doing that.

1. You will need to taper off the Lexapro, or your brain will basically go into a tailspin. I've seen it happen. It's not pretty.

2. Please don't do that without consulting with your doctor first. Remember: I'm not a doctor, and I could be wrong.

Rajan wrote on Friday, July 3, 2009:

Simon, did you consider Marmite as a source of Niacin? Not sure what form it is in in Marmite, though.

Simon Cooke wrote on Friday, July 3, 2009:

Unfortunately, I don't believe you'll get the same effect with Marmite. This is one of those cases where while it says Niacin on the bottle, it appears that they're actually using niacinamide as the fortification agent, not nicotinic acid.

Maggie wrote on Thursday, July 9, 2009:

Was just about to ask about Marmite (and the other yeast extracts, like Vegex, etc) but see it's already been addressed. Though curious to know now: how can you tell it's not the nicotinic acid type of niacin?
Maggie Hall, Yorkshire, England.

Simon Cooke wrote on Friday, July 10, 2009:

Just a websearch really…

unityemissions wrote on Thursday, July 16, 2009:

I would suggest taking both kinds if you have anxiety. Niacinamide will cross the BBB and produce a sedating effect nearly identical to low-dose diazepam. It's the exact chemical that was used to come up with benzodiazepam in the first place!

Anonymous wrote on Saturday, January 23, 2010:

Niacin has worked wonders for me.
I have tried everything under the sun including Omega 3s, and a number of antidepressants. Nothing has worked as well as Niacin I could get from GNC. The effect is pretty immediate.
I also suffer from ADHD, and I find that niacin enables me to focus.

Anonymous wrote on Sunday, February 28, 2010:

I stumbled on this doing a google search for niacin seratonin.

Thanks for posting this. My experience is that one 500 mg niacin will keep me from getting stress headaches for about 3 days. I also note a general reduced level of anziety.

Finding that niacin is related to seratonin was pretty interesting. So to trick the body into making more seratonin you convince it that it has all the niacin it needs.

Heather wrote on Monday, August 13, 2012:

This is finally something I can understand. Thank you for speaking in layman’s terms. Appreciate this so much.

donna wrote on Saturday, May 4, 2013:

Verry interesting. I have just come off 75mg effexor after 2years. I tapered off over a 4 month period fininshing completely 2 weeks ago. Stumbled over a blend of trytophan, niacin, B1 at the horse/pet supply store and thought I would try it. Feeling quite nicely chilled thank you very much, very balanced and all anxiety gone. I also take a multi vitamin krill oil and coq10. Was feeling so calm I decided to do a search on tryptophan/niacin and wah lah! here you post validating I am on the right track. Thanks. (I would not have considered taking any supplements involving serotonin whilst I was on effexor). All over now, just healthy calm living.

Fredrick wrote on Sunday, January 19, 2014:

hi friend thx for article, what about taking 50mg niacin every 3 hour during wake time or using timerelease form, instead of megadosing at one time? how much percentally better is nicotinic acid than niacin at increasing serotonin production would you estimate? thx for asnwer

Erin wrote on Tuesday, January 27, 2015:

How long did it take for your depression to improve? I am also wanting to increase my serotonin to treat fibromyalgia and aid in weight loss. Did it seem like typtophan and niacin helped you lose weight also?

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