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  • Joanna Dreher

Does taking high doses of Niacin (vitamin B3) help mental illness

Updated: Jan 9

I recognise that I may be late to the party here and everybody already knows about Niacin and its impressive use for treating many physical and mental health conditions, but its a fairly recent find for me and many of my fellow therapists haven’t heard of it either. I want to state here and now that I am not medically trained, nor a qualified nutrition therapist - anti-depressant medication is a life saver for many people and I would never advise anyone to just stop taking medication unless under the advice of their GP or Psychiatrist. I also want to state that I have always had an interest in ‘alternative therapies’ - reading books on the properties of herbs in my mid teens when other kids were swooning over pop stars. I am a passionate believer that mother nature is our best medicine chest. It doesn’t really matter why it took me so long to come across Nicain - I’m just glad I did and I want to share my findings. My advice is if you’re interested after reading this, do your own research or seek the advice of a doctor or qualified nutritionist.

My interest in Niacin peaked when looking for alternative medicine to help a young person I knew who had anxiety and depression. As a young child, one of their favourite foods was a huge bowl of cereals every morning before school. As often with teenagers, breakfast was often skipped on weekdays, it was at this point their mental health declined. Knowing that cereals were often fortified with vitamins, I began to research every vitamin that was added to their favourite cereal. There are many B vitamins that contribute to wellbeing, B6 for anxiety, B12 for anxiety, depression and lethargy, B1 (thiamine) is also linked to anxiety relief and cognitive function and B9 (folic acid) is another vitamin used to treat depression - but when I hit upon Niacin (B3) I was fascinated.

I came upon the work of Dr Hoffer and his work in Orthomolecular Medicine. Orthomolecular a term coined by his predecessor - Linus Pauling - means the right or correct molecule. Dr Hoffer believed that our diets are often deficient in certain minerals and vitamins and that allowed for triggering of chronic disease. The answer they believed was to take optimum doses of such vitamins in order to maintain optimum health.

Niacin deficiency can cause a condition known as Pellagra which is also known as the 4 D’s - dementia, diarrhoea and dermatitis and if left untreated can lead to death. Pellagra was rife in the southern states of America in the early 20th century due to the difficulty in obtaining nutrient rich corn and maize. The answer to reduce the number of deaths was to fortify flour with niacin. Interestingly once the flour was fortified, half of the inhabitants in the state mental homes - left! They weren’t mentally ill, they were malnourished!

Dr Hoffer, had a Phd in biochemistry, he was a medical doctor and a psychiatrist who was Head Psychiatrist for one of Canada’s state provinces. He performed the first double-blind, placebo controlled nutrition studies in psychiatry in 1954. Reasoning that some of the symptoms of Pellagra were similar to schizophrenia, he began treating schizophrenic patients with high doses of niacin with success in 80 percent of cases. Some years later he also went on to discover that not only could Niacin help schizophrenia but also attention deficit disorder, general psychosis, anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. His early work also went onto show that Niacin also lowered bad cholesterol and some people use it in place of statins. The President of the American College of Cardiology stated in the New York Times that for preventing heart disease and lowering cholesterol that ‘Niacin is really it, nothing else comes close’. There is also evidence for use in arthritis and cancer treatment. And yet with all this endorsement, why would we now be taking strong drugs, with many side effects and unknown interactions for these conditions. Who would not benefit from a cheap, easily produced natural substance being given to the growing number of the population who need it?

Another advocate of Niacin was Bill W. - Founder of Alcoholics Anonymous whose severe depression was treated by Dr Hoffer with a dose of 3000mg a day - his depression was gone in a week. Bill W. advised 30 of his friends to try it. 10 of them, like him, were free of depression in a week, another 10 in a month and 10 of them did not find any benefit. The fact that 10 people didn’t find niacin helped them, could be down to time and dosage. The key to orthomolecur medicine is finding the dose that is right for you, some people need smaller doses, some larger and some very much larger, but an average dose for severe depression, for instance, would be between 3000-5000mg a day taken in intervals throughout the day. Our RDA is commonly between 14-16mg a day!

It is also worth noting that there are actually 3 types of niacin - nicotinic acid, niacinamide and inositol hexiniacinate. Nicotinic acid is the type of niacin that when taken in high doses can cause a ‘niacin flush’ which feels like a sort of itchy sunburn and can last for 30 minutes or more. The more your body gets used to the niacin the less it will flush. Advocates of niacin often sate that nicotinic acid is the best form of niacin as it aids both psychiatric and blood lipid issues at smaller doses. The type of niacin you will usually find in your local health store will be either niacinamide and sometimes Inositol Hexiniacinate. These do not cause a flush but its important to understand that niacinamide does not help with cholesterol but does help with mental health issues - Inositol Hexiniacinate (IH) does help with both but you may need higher dosages than nicotinic acid and its generally more expensive.

So what’s my experience? Having gone through a difficult personal period of my life, I started to take nicotinic acid - I actually quite liked the flush, it made me feel warm and relaxed - but what I noticed within a very short time was that I slept better, that my thoughts were less anxious and sometimes, for no particular reason, I would smile and actually feel that life was good, something I hadn’t experienced for a while. I am on a relatively small dose of 1000-2000mg a day. As also recommended by Dr Hoffer and others, I also take a vitamin B complex and high doses of Vitamin C (vitamin C being another great vitamin for mental health) and yes I am better. As for the young person, they are taking the IH (non-flush niacin) and there is marked improvement in their wellbeing, other people who know them have commented and the young person declared that they know they are not depressed anymore. Yes it could be a mixture of other factors, but my gut feeling is that Dr Hoffer and his colleagues were right and Niacin is a little wonder pill.

If you are interested, you can simply search for Dr Hoffer and Niacin or Dr Saul, who worked with Hoffer, who hosts an interesting website called Doctor Yourself. You can also order Hoffer’s book online - 'Niacin - The Real Story’ - I found it a fascinating read.

I finish by stating again I am not a medical practitioner and am not qualified to give medical advice, I am just alerting you to the research if you are interested.

Joanna Dreher

Director and Personal Consultant

Blackwood Consultants Ltd