What Is Nicotinamide Riboside & Why Should We Care?
There’s some impressive science behind this unique form of vitamin B3.
In the vast world of health and wellness, it’s hard to tell which supplements have merit and which are only a passing trend. For example, we need to consume vitamins in order to avoid deficiency diseases like pellagra or scurvy. But how much we should take beyond what we get in our diet or what added benefits they might have tends to be more of a “trend.” For example, while vitamin C prevents scurvy, there’s no evidence to support that superdosing a vitamin C supplement helps cure a common cold.
Some supplements, however, do far more than address a basic need. Advances in health science research continue to help us understand how some nutrients can support our health in unanticipated ways. Some supplements provide nutrients that aren’t readily available in our diets in useful quantities. One in particular, nicotinamide riboside (NR), has benefits that reach beyond simply preventing a deficiency.
A bit of background on nicotinamide riboside
Although researchers have known about nicotinamide riboside for decades, its full value as a nutrient wasn’t uncovered until 2004. An early study in 1944 found that NR acted as a growth factor for certain kinds of bacteria, but scientists had no idea it could be of nutritional value for people.
Now researchers around the world are starting to recognize the potential of this unique nutrient. Some scientists have even proposed it functions as a unique form of vitamin B3. With encouraging results from over 100 published studies, it’s safe to say scientists are officially interested in nicotinamide riboside. Which means it's time for those of us who care about our holistic (and lifelong) health to level-up our knowledge of this unique nutrient.
NR was the third form of B3 vitamin to be discovered, following niacin (nicotinic acid) and nicotinamide (NAM). These three make up the B3 family, but the ‘3’ next to the ‘B’ actually indicates they were the third form of B vitamin discovered, not that there are three of them.
The B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, etc.) are grouped together because they all support a healthy cellular metabolism, although they each do this in different ways. Some help cells generate energy while others aid in the chemical reactions that build molecules like fats and DNA.
Scientists didn’t know NR could be a human nutrient until 2004 when biochemist Dr. Charles Brenner and his team of researchers at Dartmouth discovered it could be a new form of vitamin B3.
Over 100 clinical and preclinical studies have been published on NR since its discovery as a vitamin in 2004.
The first human clinical study of NR was published in 2016. The results were just as promising as they’d hoped: NR was a safe and effective nutrient in people. But there was still a lot more work to be done.
Now multiple published clinical studies have demonstrated the safety and effectiveness of NR in people. More than a dozen additional human studies are currently registered with the National Institutes of Health and at varying stages of completion.
While NR occurs naturally in trace amounts in cow’s milk, you’d need to consume more than 1000 glasses (roughly 50 gallons) of milk to get the same amount of NR found in the recommended daily serving of the patented and safety-notified version of NR—TRU NIAGEN®.
NR: a superhero to cells everywhere
The road to NR as a nutrient provides a great lesson on the history of science. In the 1930s, the classic B3 vitamins nicotinic acid (niacin) and nicotinamide (niacinamide) were shown to cure a vitamin deficiency disease called pellagra. These nutrients became enshrined as the canonical B3 vitamins simply because they were discovered first.
As with most things in science, however, we rarely get the full picture all at once. Research progresses, often incrementally, providing us with new information and a fuller understanding which may challenge our older ideas. The research on B3 vitamins and NR is no different. Scientists are beginning to uncover new and unique ways NR supports cellular health. We’re still understanding the many ways in which NR benefits cells and is different from its B3 brothers, but here are some things we know.
All of the vitamin B3s can be used by our cells to build new nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) molecules.
The Molecule NAD
The molecule NAD is constantly being consumed and created by cells and its levels have been shown to decline as we age. Its dwindling levels may be directly related to how we experience aging. Beyond declining with age, NAD is linked to healthy aging because of the vital role it plays in both energy production, and the optimal function of our cells’ powerhouses (the mitochondria). More broadly, NAD supports a healthy cellular metabolism. The molecule NAD helps practically every process by which cells break down food and build up molecules like fats, DNA, and hormones.
Nicotinamide (NA) is known to inhibit sirtuins, making it more difficult for them to support our overall cellular health. Nicotinamide riboside (NR), however, is a sirtuin activator.
Sirtuins are a class of proteins which have a hand in supporting cellular health by promoting cellular repair pathways that, among other things, keep mitochondria running efficiently. NR leads to NAD production, and NAD is required for sirtuins to function. Nicotinamide riboside supplementation increases NAD, which then amps up sirtuins to do their jobs.
NR uses a specific pathway to increase NAD levels, one that no other NAD precursor uses.
People who take nicotinamide (NA) complain that it causes uncomfortable skin flushing. Nicotinamide riboside (NR) doesn’t cause this skin flush, which makes it ideal for taking it in supplement form.
Newer research in cells and animal models is also showing a growing number of differences in how cells use and benefit from NR compared to the class B3s. When tested head-to-head, NR had unique NAD-boosting properties in the livers of mice. Another mouse study showed that NR promoted the cellular health of blood stem cells while the class B3s failed to have an effect.
Call it animal magnetism: NR in action
We are nowhere near the end of this science story. This is merely the beginning. What we do know about NR from human clinical trials is exciting, but we still have plenty of work to do. As we look toward expanding future research in humans, here are a few promising findings from some of the preclinical (non-human) studies on nicotinamide riboside.
Live Long and Prosper: One intriguing finding to come out of NR studies on animals are about its potential to affect the signs of aging.
See Those Muscle Gains: Aging mice were given NR supplements in a study and not only did their NAD levels increase and their mitochondrial health improve, but this led to improved muscle strength and endurance as well.
Now Hear This!: Another study done on a group of mice found that mice given NR had reduced neurite degeneration and hearing loss when exposed to loud noises.
Level Up! Or Down?: Cholesterol concentration decreased in diabetic mice and blood insulin levels improved.
Don’t Call It A Diet Pill, But…: NR hasn’t been proven to have much to do with weight loss, but it was found to activate SIRT1 and SIRT3 sirtuins in mice on high-fat diets. Those sirtuins help keep cells metabolically healthy by regulating cellular repair processes that keep mitochondria running efficiently.
Brain Power: NR had a positive effect on cognitive function and reduced amyloid plaques in mice with Alzheimer’s. Scientists think this might have to do with NR’s ability to support cellular energy production.
Matters of the Heart: The heart is an energy-hungry organ, constantly working hard to pump blood throughout the body. Researchers found that giving NR to mice with stressed hearts could help activate a natural mitochondrial repair pathway to help maintain heart function.
Bottom’s Up: It’s no secret that consuming alcohol puts stress on the liver. When mice were fed a high-alcohol diet, NR helped liver cells stay strong by supporting healthy energy production and decreasing oxidative stress.
While scientists continue to study nicotinamide riboside and hope to confirm their successes with mice in humans as well, most of them can agree that the implications of this simple-but-mighty nutrient are very promising. Healthy preventative measures are a hard sell for those of us trying to squeeze in gym time or choose the fewest calories on the menu. Supplements can’t replace all the other important steps we take to maintain our health as we age. But when it seems that one important way to maintain our cellular health could be as effortless as taking a daily supplement, it’s a good time to perk up and listen.
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