Is Nicotinamide Riboside Really An Anti-Aging Supplement?
Here’s why nicotinamide riboside (NR) is more than just another form of vitamin B3.
When we think of vitamins, we usually think of quick fixes. Take some vitamin C if you feel a cold coming on. Get some vitamin D if you haven’t seen the sun in a while. Grab a vitamin B3 supplement for a little extra energy. But what if vitamins could be more than just a quick fix? What if some of them actually began chemical reactions in our body that could help us stay healthy as we age?
That’s exactly what some of the world’s leading scientists are trying to find out with nicotinamide riboside.
Back to Biology Basics
Inside almost every cell are these tiny, strangely shaped organelles called mitochondria—you might remember them as: “the powerhouses of the cell.” These mini-organs are responsible for producing 90% of the energy we need in our bodies. The mitochondria are the reason why we exist as the complex animals we are today, rather than bacteria. They’re why we get sick, why we get healthy again, and ultimately why we die.
We didn’t always know just how vital the mitochondria were to our health, but we do now. We also know one key way of keeping mitochondria healthy is a molecule known as NAD (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide). Our cells naturally produce NAD, but we also use it constantly throughout the day and make less of it as we age. Once researchers realized NAD could be the key to keeping our cells (and therefore our bodies) healthy as we age, they scrambled for a way to make more of it.
The Beginning of the Vitamin B3s
Researchers already knew of two vitamins that began the chemical process to increase NAD: niacin and nicotinamide.
These first B3 vitamins were discovered in the 1930s and immediately implemented in pellagra treatments. This uncomfortable condition is common in places where corn and barley make up too much of the local diet, and thus some people find themselves deficient in B3.
Niacin would also go on to be a treatment for high cholesterol in the 1950s. However, people found that ingesting Niacin in high doses sometimes resulted in an annoying skin flush that was both irritating and unsightly. Nicotinamide (or NAM) didn’t cause the skin flush and could in theory provide a lot of the same benefits, but it inhibited the activation of these very important longevity proteins known as sirtuins. Neither nicotinamide nor niacin were as effective as researchers were hoping they’d be.
Although these two vitamins were NAD precursors, they weren’t ideal solutions. With niacin’s negative side effects, and the relative effectiveness of NAM, researchers still didn’t have a good enough vitamin supplement for increasing NAD levels. Another vitamin B3 known as nicotinamide riboside (NR), was discovered in the 1940s in yeast. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that scientists began to see the potential of this third form of vitamin B3 to not only increase NAD but also improve human health in general.
One Man’s Vitamin Could Be Everyone’s Treasure
In 2004, a Dartmouth College research team discovered that NR, like its vitamin B3 brothers, was also a precursor to NAD.
The team, led by Charles Brenner, PhD, found that NR could increase NAD in mice and that those mice experienced a plethora of health benefits as a result. The mice showed everything from improved blood sugar levels and cholesterol levels to reduced nerve damage, and resistance to weight gain. Dr. Charles Brenner found these results so inspiring, he knew the next step was to see what a safe and efficient vitamin like NR could mean for human health. So that’s exactly what he did.
In 2014, Dr. Charles Brenner became the first human ever to consume NR as a supplement. The results were just as promising as before. This relatively unknown form of vitamin B3 significantly increased his NAD levels safely, quickly, and without any negative side effects.
A Fully Vetted Supplement
While Brenner made for a great lab rat and the findings produced from his self-trial were encouraging, clearly more testing was needed to confirm whether NR was a viable supplement option for humans. As the Dr. Roy J. Carver Chair of Biochemistry at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, Dr. Charles Brenner collaborated with his colleagues at Queen’s University Belfast to perform the first formal human trial of NR.
In their trial, 12 healthy adults were given a single varying serving of NR, with seven-day gaps between servings. Blood and urine samples were collected throughout the trial and analyzed. In 2016, they published the promising results: NR supplementation safely increased NAD levels.
The Far-Reaching Scope Of NR
Another reason NR holds an edge over its B3 brothers, apart from its lack of negative side effects, is because of something called a pathway. A pathway is the string of steps used to create a compound, in this case, NAD.
NR uses a unique pathway to produce NAD that none of the other vitamin B3s use. NR is also like the motivational speaker of the cellular world. When NR gets to work in mitochondria, it helps form NAD and gives the anti-aging “sirtuin” proteins a pep talk. These sirtuins then work overtime to help cells stay strong as we age.
Staying healthy as we age will never be as simple as one vitamin. Even with one as promising as NR. There are over 100 studies looking into NR, with many showing that increased NAD levels are tied to neural and muscular health in mice. There are even more studies underway surrounding the positive effects of NAD levels on other age-related health problems including fatty liver disease, weight gain, insulin levels, and brain function in mice.
With six completed human trials, and 11 more underway, it’s only a matter of time before we know whether the benefits of this one simple vitamin could reach far beyond those of an average "anti-aging" supplement.