With the supplement industry valued at $39 billion dollars for 2019, it’s clear that consumers are turning to all-natural alternatives (1).
Niacin is a vitamin in the B-complex that has been used internally and topically to grow healthier hair.
In this article, I’ll go into detail about:
- What niacin is;
- How niacin functions in the body;
- The benefits of niacin for overall health and for healthy hair;
- What the research says about niacin and hair loss;
- How to get more niacin in your diet; and
- How it stands up to other conventional hair loss treatments.
Interested in learning everything you need to know about how niacin can benefit your hair? Read more below.
Quickly, make sure you take the free hair quiz later in this article.
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What Is Niacin?
To fully understand how niacin can benefit hair loss sufferers, it’s important to know just how niacin works in the systems of the body. This section will be a little science-heavy but bear with me.
Niacin is one of eight B-vitamins and is also known as vitamin B3.
Like all B-vitamins, niacin acts as a co-factor in the main energy production process of the body: the Krebs Cycle. This takes place in the mitochondria and produces ATP, the energy currency of the body. It’s also involved in a myriad of other functions in the body (2).
How Does Niacin Work?
Niacin accomplishes this by acting as a precursor for the coenzyme nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, or NAD+, which can then be converted to another coenzyme, NAD(P)+. Combined, these two coenzymes are essential for over four hundred functions within the human body. Some of these are DNA repair, detoxification, and nervous system function (2, 3).
Symptoms of Niacin Deficiency
Niacin deficiency manifests itself as a disease called pellagra. This is characterized by sun-induced skin inflammation called dermatitis, diarrhea, and dementia and may even result in death in severe cases (2).
A deficiency in this B-vitamin may also have significance in cancer development.
The Benefits of Niacin
Niacin is essential for proper bodily functions. However, it may also confer some benefits when levels are optimized in the diet.
Lowered Inflammation and Oxidative Stress
Inflammation and oxidative stress are inextricably linked. As free radicals in the body increase, so does oxidative stress. The immune system comes in at this point and inflammation results.
The issue with this? Well, inflammatory proteins from the immune system also produce free radicals. When inflammation is sustained, it releases even more free radicals into the system and the cycle starts all over again (4).
Thankfully, niacin can intervene in this process.
Niacin exerts anti-inflammatory action by inhibiting a transcription factor called NF-κB. The function of this transcription factor is to basically regulate the production of inflammatory proteins like IL-6 and TNF-α in the body. By inhibiting NF-κB, niacin can reduce overall inflammation in the body (5).
Additionally, niacin also binds to a receptor in cells called GPR109A. Activation of these receptors has been shown to reduce the release of inflammatory proteins, thus reducing inflammation.
Lowered Risk of Sun Cancer
In response to sun exposure, free radicals are generated in the body and can damage DNA. As a result, abnormal cells can form and lead to cancer (6).
In one theory of aging, it is believed that free radical generation and the DNA damage that follows is what leads to symptoms of aging over time (8).
Considering niacin’s role in DNA repair, it may, in theory, have anti-aging properties.
There have been a few studies that found an improved appearance of wrinkles with a topical niacin cream. However, there are no long term studies on niacin and its role in overall aging (9).
Niacin and Hair Loss: How Does It Work?
Now that we know how niacin works and how it can benefit our bodies, we can better understand how it might promote healthy hair.
Androgenetic alopecia is a common form of hair loss characterized by high levels of androgens like dihydrotestosterone (DHT).
All of these factors, along with others like sun exposure, smoking, and bad diet, can lead to increased free radical production. This activates a protein called TGF-β1 which mediates blood vessel calcification and fibrosis of tissues.
As a result, scalps with high levels of androgens, inflammation, and free radicals usually have less blood flow, lower oxygen levels, and collagen fibrosis around the hair follicle (perifollicular fibrosis).
This can reduce nutrient delivery to follicles, further exacerbate high androgens in the scalp, and miniaturize follicles, causing baldness. It’s a vicious cycle.
Here’s where niacin comes in.
Remember when I talked about how niacin downregulates inflammatory protein production? This mechanism of anti-inflammatory action may be able to intervene in the neverending cycle of androgenic alopecia.
If niacin is able to reduce inflammation at any stage, it may help to reduce baldness in androgenic alopecia scalps and assist in regrowing of hair.
One of the primary factors in hair growth is stem cell division. These stem cells proliferate to produce the hair shaft, resulting in hair growth. If these stem cells fail to divide, the hair follicle simply won’t produce a hair strand (11).
But, what can cause these stem cells to stop working?
Researchers propose that DNA damage from free radicals to stem cells is what causes stem cells to stop dividing within the hair follicle.
In in vitro studies, which is the examining of cells in Petri dishes outside of the body, researchers have examined balding dermal papilla cells, the cells that nourish the hair follicle.
Through observing these balding cells, scientists were able to discover that when these cells stop dividing, they also exhibited higher markers of oxidative stress and DNA damage. Because of this, it’s expected that balding scalps might be particularly more sensitive to environmental factors that increase oxidative stress. This is further confirmed by studies that associate increased oxidative stress with hair loss.
Moreover, scientists have observed that lipid peroxides, which are a product of free radicals interacting with oils in the skin and hair follicle, cause the death of hair follicle cells. In response, the hair follicle defaults into the catagen or resting stage of hair growth and stops growing.
So, how can niacin work to prevent hair loss considering this information?
When DNA is damaged, an enzyme called PARP-1 detects it. Like I mentioned earlier, niacin is a precursor for NAD+. NAD+ binds to PARP-1, which allows it to effectively repair damaged DNA. It also acts as an energy source and protects the integrity of the enzyme (12).
With this understanding, it makes sense that niacin could benefit those who suffer from hair loss.
Because DNA damage is associated with a decreased ability of stem cells to divide and produce hair, providing cells with niacin, which produces NAD+, which is a cofactor in DNA repair, may help to prevent hair loss associated with DNA damage.
Keep in mind, though, that this is all theoretical and is merely an explanation as to why niacin might be able to prevent hair loss.
How Can I Use Niacin for Hair Loss?
There are two main ways to use niacin for hair loss. Topical applications include creams and shampoos, whereas supplemental niacin is usually taken in a B-complex or multivitamin.
One of the most popular niacin-based hair loss solutions has been topical use. It can come in the form of creams and is even an ingredient in some shampoos that boast hair growth promoting qualities.
But, does it really work to regrow hair?
Topically Applied Niacin Derivative for Female Pattern Hair Loss: a Study
In one study, researchers examined 60 women with female pattern hair loss. Forty of these women were instructed to use a niacin topical and the other twenty a placebo. This study was designed as a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, meaning that neither researchers nor subjects knew whether they were receiving the niacin or the placebo (13).
After six months, scientists looked at how hair fullness improved in both groups.
Compared to the placebo group, the niacin group had a statistically significant increase in hair fullness. Considering this study was conducted using a high-quality methodology, the results are pretty reliable.
Although this study showed success with niacin, it’s important to note that more studies are needed to truly determine its efficacy for hair loss.
Dietary Niacin or Oral Supplementation
Unlike topical niacin, the efficacy of supplemental niacin on hair loss is much harder to study. Isolating niacin as the only contributing factor hair growth would be extremely difficult to achieve in study design. Consequently, there are currently no studies that examine the connection between niacin levels and hair loss (14).
But, there are a few things we do know.
Firstly, niacin is a water-soluble vitamin, meaning it isn’t stored in the fatty tissues of the body for use later. As a result, it’s important to consistently replenish your niacin levels through daily consumption. To do this, you can eat foods high in niacin or take a supplement that contains niacin.
Here are some foods that are high in niacin (12):
- Whole grains
- Dairy products
- Green leafy vegetables
Taking niacin as a supplement or consuming high levels of the vitamin in your diet may not have dramatic benefits for hair loss. However, adequate amounts in the body are important for many functions. Getting enough through diet and supplementation is an important part of a healthy lifestyle.
Secondly, niacin may be able to combat the underlying mechanisms of hair loss. In view of niacin’s biological activity in the body, the prospect is not far out of reach.
Niacin vs. Other Hair Loss Therapies
Compared to some other hair loss therapies, there’s hardly any research available to demonstrate whether or not niacin can help with hair loss. Although promising studies have been conducted, there are other options which have a much more robust scientific body to support them.
Marketed as Rogaine, minoxidil is one of the most extensively studied hair loss solutions available. It works by relaxing the muscles of the scalp. The science behind this solution is so strong that it’s FDA-approved for the treatment of androgenetic alopecia (15).
But, minoxidil only works as long as you’re using it. This means that over time, minoxidil can be a costly option for hair loss.
Although not all-natural, there’s a lot more evidence to rely on compared to niacin treatment.
Innovative Products to Relieve Scalp Tension
Scalp tension is one of the main underlying causes of hair loss. By using innovative products that mechanically relieve the tension on the scalp, you can prevent many of the factors that lead to loss of hair (10).
The best thing about these products is that they’re usually a one time purchase, unlike minoxidil. They’re also non-toxic, unlike some synthetic chemicals that are used to treat hair loss, and can be used synergistically with other therapies.
Similar to the other therapies mentioned, finasteride works by resolving one of the underlying factors of hair loss.
Finasteride is a drug that inhibits the enzyme that converts testosterone to its more powerful form, DHT. This reduces levels in the scalp which can prevent reduced blood flow, scalp tension, and inflammation that result from excess DHT.
Although there is quite a lot of evidence to support its efficacy in men, results with women are mixed. Additionally, there are some side effects associated with its use. The most commonly reported are erectile dysfunction and loss of libido (16, 17).
However, the International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery claims that there is little scientific evidence to substantiate these claims.
When compared to niacin, there’s still a lot more evidence to support finasteride’s effectiveness. However, it isn’t always effective for everyone and isn’t a natural alternative.
The Verdict: Is Niacin Worth It?
So, is niacin really worth it?
One early study using topically applied niacin derivatives shows a lot of promise for future niacin studies. But, when it comes down to it, there’s really not a ton of evidence to guarantee it will work for you if you suffer from hair loss.
That being said, the biological mechanisms of niacin not only theoretically support hair growth but may even combat the underlying factors that cause hair loss.
With all this in consideration, here’s the verdict: niacin is extremely safe to use and can be an alternative other synthetic hair loss treatments. Although it doesn’t have a super robust body of literature to support it, it’s definitely worth trying as we wait for more research to emerge.
Interested in learning more about other hair loss treatments? Check out more of my informative blog posts on both drugs, natural alternatives, and lifestyle changes that can impact hair loss. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!