Vitamin B3, one of the B-complex vitamins, attracted little attention until a recent study from the University of California at Irvine found it to reverse Alzheimer’s disease in laboratory mice. Now you can read about this study in just about every natural medicine newsletter and if you Google it you get more than 15,000 hits.
First of all it is important to realize that this study used the “niacinamide” form of vitamin B3. This vitamin, generally referred to as niacin, actually comes in two different forms with significantly different properties. One is niacin, or nicotinic acid, and the other is niacinamide. Niacin is known to cause a flushing sensation when ingested in large doses, and to lower cholesterol. It has also been used as a component of highly effective detoxification programs involving sauna therapy.
Niacinamide, on the other hand, does not cause flushing at any dose nor does it lower cholesterol. However, it is readily converted to an enzyme called NADH that is needed for metabolism and energy production. Unlike other vitamins, the body is able to make its own niacinamide using tryptophan as the raw material. Tryptophan is an amino acid the body also uses to make serotonin, a critical neurotransmitter for moods, sometimes referred to as the “happy brain chemical.” Since tryptophan is often in short supply in the body, taking niacinamide can help spare it and make more available for serotonin production. As a result, niacinamide has complex interactions with body and brain function as well as wide-ranging benefits.
If you search online you will find that many sites are now promoting niacinamide as a cure for Alzheimer’s, even though the study was performed on mice that were genetically programmed to develop an illness that looks like – but is not – the same Alzheimer’s that affects many of our loved ones.
In humans, Alzheimer’s disease happens late in life and research is linking it increasingly to environmental toxins. It is clearly not genetically programmed since most people who develop it have no family history of the disease, though certainly genetics play a role in it (as in every aspect of health). Even the staunchest proponents of the genetic theory of Alzheimer’s will readily admit that so far we have only found genes that increase the risk of developing the disease but fall short of causing it, as the actual cause is environmental.
The most promising aspect of the Alzheimer’s study was not that niacinamide cured the disease in mice, because we don’t know if this will apply to humans, but that even the healthy mice that were given this vitamin experienced remarkable improvements in memory. This benefit had never been reported previously, and it is one that is likely to extend to humans as well. The yet-unanswered question is whether niacinamide can be of even greater help to people with Alzheimer’s disease.
One little-known benefit of niacinamide is that it works as a powerful anti-inflammatory. In fact, for 50 years now niacinamide has been known to effectively relieve the pain of arthritis with no toxicity and rare side effects. As incredible as it may seem for people who suffer from arthritis and have never heard of this from their healthcare provider, this is a well-documented benefit of niacinamide. Though it may take a few weeks to set in, the benefit in terms of pain reduction is comparable to that of NSAIDs and probably greater than the heavily promoted Glucosamine/Chondroitin at a fraction of the price (however the two supplements can be taken together for even greater benefits).
Niacinamide is also known to pass readily into the brain across the so-called blood-brain barrier, a natural defense that limits what can penetrate the brain. As a result, it is likely that niacinamide would exert the same anti-inflammatory effect in the brain. This is one way in which it could prove beneficial for Alzheimer’s disease which, according to new research, develops as a result of inflammation of the brain (see http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/09/health/09alzh.html). In addition to Alzheimer’s, autism and also ADHD are believed to be often associated with inflammation of the brain.
Other studies suggest that Alzheimer’s is linked to blood sugar disorders. This is not incompatible with the inflammation finding because blood sugar disorders are known to trigger inflammation throughout the body, hence in the brain as well. In fact, some researchers have gone so far as to define Alzheimer’s as “Diabetes of the brain” (see: http://www.slate.com/id/2213755/).
Obviously you don’t need to have diabetes to develop Alzheimer’s. Another far more common condition known as Metabolic Syndrome is also associated with an increased risk of this disease. In Metabolic Syndrome there is a partial loss of blood sugar regulation that is not as dramatic or easy to detect as in diabetes but almost as damaging to health. Most often Metabolic Syndrome is characterized by weight gain around the midsection of the body together with common abnormalities like high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
Though diet plays a central role in correcting blood sugar problems, here too niacinamide can help as it was shown to improve glucose metabolism, stimulate cellular energy production and even improve peripheral blood flow (see http://www.vrp.com/articles.aspx?ProdID=397).
However, the most dramatic benefits of niacinamide have to do with its direct effects on the brain. These were first discovered by Abraham Hoffer, MD in the 1970’s. Not only did Dr. Hoffer discover these benefits, he proved them through various studies that have long been forgotten to the benefit of the patented drug industry.
Dr. Hoffer belonged to a self-appointed group of “orthomolecular psychiatrists.” Orthomolecular is a word they themselves coined from the ancient Greek, ortho meaning straight or normal and molecular referring to naturally occurring molecules in the body or brain. Basically, these doctors were interested in normalizing levels of nutrients in the brain to optimize mental health rather than covering symptoms up with drugs.
Carl Pfeiffer, MD, PhD, also a member of the orthomolecular group, once stated that for every drug there is a nutrient or combination of nutrients that can achieve the same result better and with fewer side effects.
If you are wondering, there are very few of these doctors remaining today, though some are still out there and you can find them or read about them here: http://www.orthomolecular.org/.
Dr. Hoffer was working with young adults with schizophrenia, and with children and adults with bipolar and behavioral disorders. He discovered that when he gave these patients high doses of niacinamide many recovered and others improved greatly. The dose had to be carefully adjusted, and in some cases it had to be combined with vitamin B6 and vitamin C, but the end result was well worth the effort. Side effects that are so common with psychiatric medications and include dulling the brain and altering personality were non-existent with these vitamins.
Later, in working with people suffering from anxiety disorders it was found that niacinamide is equally beneficial. Though other supplements also help relieve anxiety, niacinamide is often right up there as the most, or one of the most effective and it is always the least expensive. Even when it does not fully relieve anxiety on its own, when combined with other supplements like 5HTP, GABA, L-theanine and others, it often provides the key to complete success.
For adults an average dose of niacinamide might be in the range of 1,000 mg three times a day, and this applies regardless of the reason for taking it. Although this dose is often helpful there are people who need more, and in rare cases much more, as well as a few people who develop side effects at this dose but do very well with half as much or even less.
In the orthomolecular website mentioned above you can read about children Dr. Hoffer treated who needed as much as 6,000 to 8,000 mg of niacinamide per day. These children had severe behavioral problems, however when they took this dose of niacinamide they became cooperative, affectionate and cheerful. Although it is a huge dose it was proven safe even when taken for long periods of time.
At the other end of the spectrum there are people who experience nausea and loss of appetite on a dose of 1,000 mg three times a day. When this happens, if these people are tested they will have elevated liver enzymes that correlate closely with the sensation of nausea. These people are very sensitive to niacinamide and they need to take less. As their nausea clears their liver enzymes will return to normal and never has there been any liver damage resulting from this transient elevation of liver enzymes.
Because of this rare side effect, opponents of natural treatments have claimed that niacinamide is toxic to the liver and you can find warnings to this effect on the internet. However, these claims are unfounded because even in the rare cases when liver enzymes do go up they revert to normal as soon as the dose is reduced, with no enduring damage to the liver.
Whether this amazing nutrient will turn out to be a wonder drug for Alzheimer’s remains to be seen, but in the meantime many of us can take advantage of its multiple benefits.