It’s strange to say a molecule is getting “press,” but that’s exactly what’s happening to NAD (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide) in publications ranging from Wired to Shape. NAD (pronounced en-aye-dee) is an essential molecule found in every living cell. Biochemists have known about this critical coenzyme since 1906 and have extensively studied how all living cells use NAD to generate energy.
But newer research is expanding how scientists think about NAD. We’ve learned that NAD can be used by cellular machines like sirtuins (the so-called “longevity genes”) to help cells respond to stress and maintain their overall health. We also know NAD levels decline with age. Now the fact that we lose NAD over time and that it’s involved in so many different processes is precisely why some of world’s leading neuroscientists, biochemists, and researchers are paying attention to it.
Here are just some of the ways we know NAD is involved in our body’s functions.
NAD & Aging
Out of all the factors that require NAD, aging is probably the most significant and least avoidable. By age 60, a person’s NAD levels are approximately half of what they were in their 40s. With increasing age, processes that create more NAD start to slow down just as NAD-consuming activities speed up. This can leave all of the processes that rely on NAD–including those listed below–competing for a shrinking supply of this resource.
NAD & Alcohol
Whether you get your buzz out of grapes, barley, potatoes, or molasses, all alcohol is created from sugar. For our bodies to process that after-hours beverage, the alcohol must first be detoxified by enzymes that require NAD to function. NAD is involved in two steps of this process: first to convert the alcohol into less toxic molecules, and then to break down those molecules to generate cellular energy.
NAD & fat
One of NAD’s most essential functions is energy metabolism. Our cells use NAD to turn the food (and drinks) we consume into the energy we need to stay healthy. As a cell breaks down energy-rich molecules like fats, NAD helps transfer energy out of that food and into more useful forms that can be used to fuel practically every process in the cell.
NAD & Carbs
Just like NAD helps generate cellular energy from fats, it’s also needed to capture energy stored in more sugary forms. As soon as cells start breaking down carbohydrates, NAD is there to help cells get a sweet energy payoff.
NAD & Sleep
The production of NAD is one of the many biological processes that follows a circadian rhythm. Energy metabolism, hormone regulation, and body temperature variations all rely on a 24-hour cycle as well. Keeping these processes in sync is important, as misaligned circadian rhythms lead to things like jet lag and sleep deprivation. In addition to being under circadian control, NAD can talk back to circadian time-keepers, which can help regulate circadian rhythms at a molecular level.
NAD & Sunlight
We’ve known for years that too much sun can definitely be a bad thing. But one of the reasons why that’s true has to do with NAD. NAD kickstarts signaling molecules that help cells respond to long-term sun exposure.
NAD & Muscles
All exercise requires NAD. Cellular stores of ATP—the “energy currency” of cells—must constantly regenerate to power muscle contractions. It’s been estimated that endurance runners regenerate their body weight in ATP over the course of a two-hour marathon. NAD is central to this process, both during exercise and the recovery process after.
NAD & Sitting
Even someone living a sedentary lifestyle requires NAD for basic biological functions like eating, sleeping, and breathing. All of our cells, and therefore all of our bodily functions, would stop functioning without NAD.
NAD & breathing
With every breath we take, oxygen enters our body and makes its way across our trillions of cells. That oxygen is used along with NAD to help generate cellular energy. This process can sometimes affect other parts of a cell through an imbalance known as oxidative stress. There’s not much you can do to prevent this—after all, you can’t stop breathing. Fortunately, cells have ways to deal with this oxidative stress, one of which includes using a close relative of NAD called NADP.
It’s easy to see why scientists are so interested in NAD. Not only is this molecule involved in a host of essential processes, but it’s also shown to decline with age. With the number of Americans aged 65 and older predicted to more than double by 2050, that’s a lot of people living longer. If there were ever a time to explore the full potential of NAD to improve the quality of human life and aging: it’s now.