Niacin may reduce depression by increasing your body’s availability of serotonin. Consider speaking with a professional to determine if this vitamin is a healthy option for you.

In recent years, there’s been a growing interest in using alternative treatments, including vitamins and supplements, to help manage mental health conditions like depression.

One supplement that’s gained attention for its potential role in managing depressive symptoms is niacin, a form of vitamin B3.

Let’s take a closer look at the research surrounding niacin and depression and see whether this vitamin may be a safe and effective treatment option.

Niacin, also known as vitamin B3, is a water-soluble vitamin that plays a crucial role in energy metabolism and the maintenance of healthy skin, nerves, and digestive system.

Niacin is also involved in the production of certain hormones, including sex hormones and stress hormones, as well as in DNA repair and maintenance.

The two most common forms of niacin are nicotinic acid and nicotinamide (also known as niacinamide). Both forms can be found in foods and supplements, but nicotinic acid causes a flushing (a warm tingling sensation on the skin) in high doses.

Niacin may indirectly reduce depression by increasing your body’s availability of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, appetite, and sleep.

While research is lacking on this topic, several case studies and personal anecdotes have reported positive results from taking niacin for various psychiatric problems.

A 2018 case study describes a man with bipolar type II who was still experiencing psychiatric symptoms while taking lithium and other medications.

When he began taking high doses of niacin (nicotinic acid), he experienced a dramatic and positive effect. Niacin made him feel so calm and stable that he was able to taper off all of his other medications. At the time of the study, he’d been taking 1 gram of niacin three times a day for 11 years with good results.

When he stopped taking niacin, he’d become anxious and depressed within 2-3 days. The authors state that more studies are needed to further investigate the prevalence of vitamin B3 dependency.

It’s important to note that this is a single case study, and this type of niacin treatment won’t work for everyone. If you plan to stop taking prescribed medication speak with a qualified professional.

A mental health professional will help adjust your tapering schedule.

How does niacin work?

Both niacin and serotonin are synthesized by the amino acid tryptophan. When we don’t get enough niacin from our diet, our body converts tryptophan into niacin instead of using it to make serotonin.

This can lead to lower levels of serotonin, which can contribute to depression and other mood disorders.

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Niacin deficiency (not getting enough niacin in your diet) is considered rare in developed countries, but it can still occur in individuals with chronic alcoholism, malnutrition, and certain medical conditions that impair niacin absorption or metabolism.

Most adults need only a small amount of niacin every day (about 14 to 16 milligrams). But some people with mental health conditions, such as depression, may benefit from taking much higher doses of niacin.

When your body requires a high level of niacin to function correctly, it’s considered a “niacin dependency,” rather than a niacin deficiency. The 2018 case study of the man with bipolar II was an example of niacin dependency.

If you would like more information on niacin and other vitamins that can help relieve depression consider our vitamin resource page.

What are the mental and emotional symptoms of niacin deficiency?

The mental and emotional symptoms of niacin deficiency may include:

  • depression
  • cognitive impairment
  • confusion
  • anxiety
  • psychosis (Severe niacin deficiency can lead to a condition known as pellagrous psychosis.)

Skin flushing as a marker of psychiatric illness

When taken in high doses, niacin (nicotinic acid) can cause skin flushing, which is a temporary reddening of the skin accompanied by a warming or itching sensation. This occurs because niacin stimulates the release of prostaglandins, which are hormone-like substances that regulate various physiological processes, including blood vessel dilation.

Some a small 2022 study suggests that the degree of skin flushing one experiences from niacin may serve as a biological marker of various psychiatric illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression.

A 2010 study of 30 participants with major depressive disorder (MDD) found that those who experienced little to no flushing had more severe depressive symptoms, such as:

  • depressed mood
  • anxiety
  • loss of appetite

In other words, those with more severe depressive symptoms may require more niacin before it reaches a therapeutic effect, as shown by flushing.

Overall, the study results suggest there may be a subgroup of people with depression that can be characterized by altered niacin skin flushing.

Foods rich in vitamin B3

Some of the foods that are particularly rich in niacin include:

  • poultry (chicken, turkey)
  • fish (salmon, tuna, trout)
  • peanuts and peanut butter
  • whole grains (brown rice, wheat, barley)
  • legumes (lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans)
  • milk and dairy products.
  • vegetables (mushrooms, green peas, potatoes)
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Niacin is generally safe when taken in recommended doses for the treatment or prevention of niacin deficiency.

Some of the risks and side effects of niacin include:

  • Skin flushing: High doses of niacin can cause skin flushing (red, warm, and/or itchy sensation). This is typically harmless, but it can be uncomfortable.
  • Gastrointestinal (GI) side effects: High doses of niacin may cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea.
  • Low blood pressure: Niacin can cause a drop in blood pressure, which may be of concern for individuals taking blood pressure-lowering medications.
  • Increased blood sugar: High doses of niacin may increase blood sugar levels, which can be a concern for individuals with diabetes or insulin resistance.
  • Skin rashes: Some individuals may develop skin rashes or other allergic reactions to niacin supplements.
  • Liver damage: High doses of niacin may increase the risk of liver damage, especially in individuals with liver disease or those taking certain medications.

While the research on niacin for depression is still evolving, the promising results so far give hope for the future of this treatment option.

If you’re currently living with depression, don’t hesitate to reach out for help and explore your options. There’s hope for healing and a brighter future ahead.