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.
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).