Niacin – also known as B3 – is a peculiar vitamin, indeed. The human body cannot produce it, so it is considered an essential nutrient that needs to be consumed through a balanced diet/supplementation. Niacin is a necessary constituent of protein, carbohydrate, and fat metabolism to produce ATP, aids in the synthesis of muscle and liver glycogen, and assists with the formation of red blood cells and DNA. Niacin deficiencies are rare – especially in developed countries where it is commonly used to fortify grains. As a supplement, niacin has been noted to have significant and dramatic affects within the body – almost drug like.
Ever Heard of a “Niacin Flush”?
This occurs when an individual consumes a dose of niacin that exceeds their metabolic threshold, which varies from individual to individual. In most cases, people may experience a niacin flush by consuming 500-1,000 mg at one time – effects may be more significant if consumed on an empty stomach. The “flush” is the consequence of excess niacin stimulating the production of prostaglandins (D2 and E2) – causing peripheral vasodilation – and histamine (which I will touch on later). Typically, this produces drying, itchiness, and reddening of the skin. This side effect is mild to moderate – depending on individual threshold and dosage – and may initiate within 20-60 minutes post consumption and last anywhere from 20-180 minutes (again, depending on individual factors).
Although a physical nuisance, the flushing effect of mega-dosing with niacin may have beneficial effects – though difficult to say definitively; most of the “positive effects” of niacin are anecdotal at best. However, western science has validated the practical application of niacin supplementation in the reduction of LDL and VLDL (“bad”) cholesterol, with a concomitant increase in HDL (“good”) cholesterol. The supression of LDL and VLDL may be attributed to the inhibiting triglyceride synthesis in the liver (1).
As I have indicated, mega-dosing with niacin has alleged ancillary health benefits among various health and fitness circles. Many claim that the flushing effect of niacin stimulates the “detoxification of adipose tissue”. Regardless if niacin acts on these tissues or not, the fact remains – yes, excess toxins that cannot be filtered out via liver/kidneys and eliminated via urine/feces do get stored in adipose tissue. And if niacin does stimulate detoxification, then the itchiness that proceeds may be the consequence of elevated histamine in the circulation. Taking this hypothetical chemical reaction a step further, histamine likely would be produced as a natural defense mechanism due to the influx of toxic substances into the blood stream that were once isolated in fat tissue.
The extent of this purported detoxification effect is speculative at best – I can find no specific research that backs up the claims – but nor would I expect it (western medicine does not care about detoxification as most drug are actual toxins themselves). Aside from detoxification, niacin may also have positive affects on growth hormone production, particularly in combination with amino acids: arginine, ornithine, glutamine, glycine, and lysine. Fitness enthusiasts claim that growth hormone production is significantly improved above baseline when these supplements are taken on an empty stomach post workout. Likewise, since the pituitary optimally produces growth hormone during sleep, perhaps supplementing with niacin and the amino acid complex prior to bedtime would be another ideal metabolic window of opportunity. Unlike the detox, boosting growth hormone may not require the flush effect.
Lastly, niacin has also been claimed to improve/treat depression. Actually, this is the basis for my entire discovery of niacin as a mega-dose supplement.
My Experience with Niacin
After watching the documentary film, Food Matters, and listening to the inspiring words of Andrew W. Saul (Ph.D., Therapeutic Nutrition Specialist, and author) I decided to recommend it as an additional aid to one of my clients who suffers from debilitating periods of depression (already medicated with Cymbalta). According to Andrew Saul, the recommended dose for treating depression is 3,000 mg of niacin per day.
I do not have depression, but I figured that if I am going to be recommending it to one of my clients, I should have first hand experience with it and the prospective flushing effects. At first I did this for integrity purposes (I very rarely recommend something I haven’t tried first), but then my supplementation became experimental as I tried to discern if their are any distinguishable health benefits. The results…? Certainly some potential. But a word of caution first…
I started off somewhat fast, taking 1,000 mg three times daily. At each dosage, I would flush for 1-2 hours, which was an uncomfortable but tolerable reaction. Within about a week, on one particular Friday, I started to experience significant flu like symptoms: fatigue, light dizziness, nausea, muscle aches and weakness. This came about rather quickly, and within 2 hours of the onset, I was completely debilitated! My body produced a constant neuromuscular pain – unlike anything else I have ever experienced before! On Saturday, I experienced a migraine for the first time in my life! It was excruciating… By Sunday, the migraines ceased, yet the muscular pain persisted (mostly in my upper, middle, and lower trapezeus, and posterior deltoids). The pain was so intense I had to take pain-killers to sleep.
I tried almost everything to help speed up my recovery. The only definitively successful treatment was electrolytes. Once I started drinking an electrolyte powder mix, my muscle pains began to subside. Apparently, I must have flushed them out, causing an imbalance in ionic potential that caused my nervous system to hyper-activate my muscles (well… that’s my deduced hypothesis anyway). Once I got better, I got back on the horse and reduced my intake to 500 mg three times daily. Be warned…
Now that things are back to normal, what I have noticed is that my keratosis pilaris and dandruff disappeared. I have had the keratosis pilaris on my upper arms for years, and though I never really cared much about it, it never faded regardless of my diet or skin care products. As for the dandruff, I had been experiencing flakes for several years and no amount of organic shampoos/conditioners seemed to help. But that’s pretty much the only benefits I have noticed, for now.
If you or someone you know plans on supplementing with niacin, I highly suggest slow and gradual increases toward the coveted mega-dosages (+1,000 mg/day). For more information about niacin, please refer to these links:
1. Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol. 1999 Apr; 19(4):1051-9. Niacin accelerates intracellular ApoB degradation by inhibiting triacylglycerol synthesis in human hepatoblastoma (HepG2) cells. Jin FY, Kamanna VS, Kashyap ML. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10195935