It sounds so seductive, doesn’t it?
Treat your depression by simply increasing your vitamin intake.
No having to pay for a doctor consultation, no having to undergo hours on end of therapy dragging up all the unpleasantries of your past, and no getting addicted to prescription meds.
But does it actually work? That’s the million-dollar question.
In this article, we’re going to look at why niacin is recommended by some for depression, and then we’re going to explore how effective it might be, before wrapping up with a conclusion. Feel free to scroll ahead.
What is Niacin and where can it be found?
What is Niacin?
Niacin, also known as Vitamin B3, is the generic name for nicotinic acid, nicotinamide, and a number of related derivatives. (Despite the very similar name, there’s no relation between nicotinic acid and nicotine.)
Where can Niacin be found?
Although Niacin supplements are very easy to come by in the form of capsules and tinctures, it is more often found in everyday foods. And in a very wide variety of foods, too. It can be found in high levels in lean meats such as chicken, turkey and beef, and in seafoods such as fish. It is also found in high levels in many beans, lentils, nuts and seeds.
Most people get enough niacin from the food they eat without really having to think about it at all. Even vegetarians.
What does Niacin do, what are the benefits?
Niacin is a very important nutrient for the body, it helps to keep your nervous system, digestive system and your skin healthy. One of its main functions in the body is to help turn the food you eat into energy by breaking down other nutrients, and is an essential part of your body’s metabolism.
The list of what niacin can do for the body is seemingly endless. It can improve your cholesterol, by lowering your bad LDL cholesterol and increasing good HDL cholesterol. It’s also thought to be of interest in treating type 1 diabetes, preventing heart disease, treating Alzheimer’s, reducing symptoms of arthritis, and treating pellagra.
What Niacin does in the brain
Getting into the brain
Not everything you eat enters your brain because there is a barrier in place, known as the blood-brain barrier. But, niacin does. It can move freely across the blood-brain barrier in both directions.
Within the brain, there are many naturally occurring chemicals that can have all sorts of effects on the brain functioning and on your mood. These chemicals are called neurotransmitters.
Niacin is what is known as a precursor to several of these neurotransmitters. This means that Niacin can go on to form a neurotransmitter in the brain. These neurotransmitters include serotonin and dopamine, both of which are strongly implicated in good, positive moods.
Depression and the brain
What is depression?
We’re all familiar with sadness. But clinical depression is not exactly the same thing. Clinical depression is typically sustained, long-lasting sadness that will not ease or lift easily.
Sometimes depression can be very hard to spot in someone, because talking about it doesn’t always come easily. And in the early stages, behavioral changes may be minimal. Someone who is mildly depressed can often still go about their regular normal life, going to school or college or work, etc.
But at the other end of the spectrum, it can be particularly severe, if not devastating. Sometimes a severely clinical depressed person may become obsessed with the idea of suicide, and may even make attempts to self-harm or attempts to kill themselves.
Sadly, clinical depression is a very phenomenon that can affect huge swaths of the population.
Causes of depression
The specific cause of clinical depression still remains somewhat uncertain…
Many would argue that some individuals have a genetic predisposition to depression. This means that a person’s genetic make-up makes them more likely to develop depression at some time in their life.
This genetic predisposition may mean that the brain’s neurotransmitters are not being formed at the optimum rate, or that the brain’s cells don’t have enough properly formed receptors to receive the happy chemical signals from the neurotransmitters.
And this is an argument that has legs. Because one of the most common means of treatment for clinical depression is the prescription of antidepressants. Which leads us nicely onto our next section.
What do antidepressants do?
Antidepressants are prescribed in order to address the chemical imbalance in the brain that underlies and accompanies depression. They work to increase the levels of neurotransmitters that are being passed around by the brain’s cells.
Some work to increase the levels of dopamine, some to increase the levels of serotonin, and so on. Some antidepressants work to increase the levels of multiple neurotransmitters. It is beyond the scope of this article to describe how they do this.
Not getting enough niacin every day can have a number of different effects, and depression is one of the most common and prominent effects.
Niacin deficiency also comes with a number of related effects in the mind and brain, including the likes of apathy, anxiety, fatigue, disorientation, headaches and memory loss.
If left untreated, a niacin deficiency can also lead to skin conditions, diarrhea, and dementia.
Side effects of niacin
There are three main side effects you can get from taking too much niacin…
There’s low blood pressure, which can be dangerous to some people. There’s the niacin flush, whereby your skin feels as if it’s burning and turns red. And there’s liver damage, which is characterized by jaundice, which is a yellowing of the skin and eyes. Other signs of liver damage include itching, nausea, vomiting, and fatigue.
How effective is Niacin for depression?
Studies into using niacin to treat depression
The main people to fund studies into the efficiency of medications to treat illness are big pharma, the big pharmaceutical companies.
However, the development of drugs to treat depression, or any other disorder for that matter, is largely based on what we already know works.
And, moreover, it is not in the pharmaceutical company’s best interest to properly investigate the possibility of niacin as a cure for depression. If it were to become common knowledge that common everyday vitamins such as niacin could be used to treat depression, then big pharma would not be able to sell their antidepressants and could potentially lose millions of dollars in revenue.
For these reasons, there are NO clinical studies into the effectiveness of taking niacin to treat depression.
Personal testimonials on taking niacin for depression
Here on drugs.com, at the time this article was written, there were 49 individual reviews written by people who have tried using niacin to treat their depression. The average user rating is very positive, coming in at 8.6 out of 10.
And to break that down a little, 68% of those who rated it gave it a full 10 out of 10. And this was closely followed by those who rated it at 9 out of 10, who made up a further 10 % of the bunch.
Now, at first glance that sounds very positive. But you also have to consider whether there are many people who have tried niacin to treat their depression and found it ineffective, but weren’t sufficiently motivated to report their findings to sites like drugs.com.
Anyways, let’s take a closer look at what these reviews actually say about it all…
One person, identified as Pete, reported increased energy levels in just 3 days of taking niacin.
An anonymous individual stated that “niacin is the cure for depression and cannabis induced psychosis”.
Trish said “…By the second day of taking niacin, that dark, heavy cloud on my brain just went away. My cat did something goofy, and I actually laughed, I can’t remember the last time I honestly laughed!…”
Another person said ““I’ve suffered from severe major depression for over a decade with little to no relief from countless medications at a variety of doses. I’ve been using niacin for two months now, and I feel fantastic…”
Another person reported, “My daughter, an RN, fell into a severe depression and ended up in the hospital…We started her on niacin – 1500 mg a day, no flush, and her mood and motivation changed instantly!..”
Taking niacin for niacin deficiency or depression
If you want to supplement your diet with niacin, we would recommend that you first do this by way of eating more foods containing niacin rather than taking it in pill form. That way, there’s no risk of overdose or liver damage.
But our advice to you, if you believe that your depression may be caused by a vitamin deficiency, is to go and get checked out first. Only then if it turned out that you do in fact have a vitamin deficiency would it be worth taking a niacin supplement.
Treatment for niacin deficiency normal requires a dosage of 20 mg per day. However, it has been suggested that a much higher dose is necessary for the treatment of clinical depression, with positive effects requiring a dosage of 11,500 mg in one instance.
If you do decide to use niacin as a means to ease your low mood, we suggest that you start with a small dose initially. You can always increase your dosage at a later date. But, if you start to experience any of the side effects, we suggest that you stop taking it and concentrate instead on other means of treating your low mood.
How to best treat depression
There have been many suggestions over the years as to how to best treat depression…
Antidepressants have only been around since the 1950s, up until then, more traditional methods were used to treat low mood. And these other methods are still seen today.
Perhaps one of the most common alternative treatment methods is talking therapies and counselling. And this can help many people to come to terms with their issues.
Then there’s exercise. Good cardiovascular exercise can release endorphins in the body that work to boost your mood.
Then there’s mindfulness and meditation. A means by which you can train yourself to quieten your mind, and not get dragged into negative thoughts and needless worrying or overthinking.
Or there’s the more common approach of addressing any negative thoughts directly, and assessing whether these thoughts are rational or irrational, and trying to dismiss them if they are irrational or the result of faulty thinking.
And, of course, there’s the option of taking prescription antidepressants. And sometimes something as simple as getting better sleep can make all the difference.
As for which of these options is best to take, that comes down to the individual. One method that might work great for one person, might make things worse for someone else.
But, you don’t have to choose just one method of treatment. In his book The Depression Cure, Dr Steve Ilardi describes how depression is best treated by using multiple methods all at the same time.
But the important thing to remember in the treatment of depression is to not give up. Where there is life, there is hope. And just because one method didn’t work for you doesn’t mean the next one won’t either.
So, although one of the most common symptoms of niacin deficiency is depression, that does not mean to say that that is what’s causing your depression or low mood. And on that basis, we would argue that you should only take a niacin supplement to treat your mood if you have been tested to prove that you do in fact have a niacin deficiency.
If you are experiencing low mood but are not necessarily clinically depressed, then using treatment methods without prescription drugs can be a great idea. You may even start to see results right away.
However, if you are regularly self-harming or are preoccupied with thoughts of suicide, we strongly encourage you to see a doctor, because this is very serious. Despite all the alternative treatments out there, there’s more scientific evidence out there to prove that antidepressants are one of the most effective means to treat clinical depression.