Most of us don’t spend much time thinking about our cells. You may remember from an early biology class that cells are the “building blocks of life.” They are the smallest form of life capable of replicating themselves and carrying out essential functions in living organisms. All of our energy, our immunity, our sense of comfort, and well-being begins with our cells.
In spite of all that, most people don’t even think about their cellular health until things start to go wrong. We feel tired faster, find physical activity more difficult, notice our sleep patterns change, and that our skin doesn’t look quite as young as it used to.
Modern science, however, has taught us that getting older doesn’t have to feel that way. It’s common knowledge now that eating healthy, finding a good exercise routine, getting a good night’s rest, and quitting smoking can all encourage our overall health at any age.
But there is still a lot more that can be done. And, it all starts with our cells.
What is NAD and why do we need it?
One way to keep cells healthy is to give them what they need to function properly. And one of the most important ways of doing that is with a coenzyme called NAD (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide; pronounced en-aye-dee). This molecule is famous in some parts of the scientific community for supercharging our cells. However, very few people outside of those specific fields even know what NAD is.
Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) is a coenzyme that was discovered over 100 years ago by scientists studying fermentation. NAD does two essential things in the cell:
- It aids in the process of turning nutrients into energy. This is a crucial part of cellular metabolism and the beginning of every energy-driven process in our bodies.
- NAD is known to boost the activity of sirtuins [mfn]Grabowska W, Skiora E, Bielak-Zmijewska A. Sirtuins, a promising target in slowing down the ageing process. Biogerontology 2017 Aug;18(4):447-476. doi: 10.1007/s10522-017-9685-9. Epub 2017 Mar 3.[/mfn], an essential protein used by the cell. Sirtuins promote mitochondrial health and support overall cellular health when they are active and working hard.
NAD is critical to our bodies but the best things in life usually come in limited supply. NAD levels lower as we age. Our mitochondrial functions decline as well. There are a lot of studies right now that find evidence of a direct link between lower NAD levels and the health-related problems of aging in mice. Mice aren’t people, obviously, but such promising findings help guide future research in humans.
Many of these studies center around a unique nutrient known as nicotinamide riboside (NR). Scientists already acknowledge NR is a safe and efficient means of increasing NAD. Now researchers all over the world are using NR to test the potential of increased NAD to improve human health as we age.
How NR helps increase NAD
NR helps make NAD because it’s a precursor. Precursors are molecules used in chemical reactions to create another compound. NR is a building block that helps create the end product: NAD.
Think of it like making a cake. Your ingredients (salt, sugar, flour) are “precursors” to a cake. You can have these components separately without a cake, but you can’t make a cake without using some ingredients.
Similarly, there are specific precursors to NAD that cells can use to make NAD. Some of these precursors that increase NAD levels, including a form of NR, are available as supplements that can be purchased over-the-counter.
Other ways of increasing NAD
There are other NAD precursors as well, starting with the B3 vitamins. Yes, there are plenty of B vitamins, each providing benefits to the body. But it is the vitamins that form the B3 family that are the ones responsible for increasing NAD levels.
Classically, there are two different forms of vitamin B3:
- niacin (aka nicotinic acid)
- nicotinamide (aka niacinamide).
These forms of B3 were discovered back in the 1930s when scientists were researching how to treat a vitamin deficiency disease called pellagra. Both of these B3 vitamins help your cells produce NAD with varying degrees of success.
Niacin was the earliest form of B3 discovered and for many years was the go-to vitamin for high cholesterol. Unfortunately, its use as a supplement is limited as it can cause an uncomfortable skin flush.
Nicotinamide is the second of the B3s and is also a precursor to NAD. It does not cause the skin flush, but it can react negatively with sirtuins, which are important for cellular health and repair.
The superiority of NR over B3
Scientists first uncovered the NAD-boosting properties of NR in 2004. Because it can increase NAD levels, some have proposed it to be a newer, third form of vitamin B3. NR, however, is not known to cause flushing and has been shown to activate sirtuins. This gives it an edge over niacin and nicotinamide.
Early preclinical experiments testing NR head-to-head against the other B3s have demonstrated NR’s unique effects on NAD levels and mitochondrial health. Human studies have shown that NR safely and effectively increases NAD, making it a great way to invest in healthy aging.
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Other technical precursors to NAD are tryptophan (yes, the sleep-inducing amino acid found in your Thanksgiving turkey) and nicotinamide mononucleotide, or NMN. Tryptophan is an amino acid that aids in the production of NAD. However, the process that needs to occur for tryptophan to produce NAD is long and drawn out. This makes tryptophan a less effective pathway to NAD creation. NMN is a nucleotide derived from ribose and nicotinamide. It is undergoing tests for its efficacy in increasing NAD levels in humans.
Of course, our bodies naturally produce NAD in a variety of ways. Eating certain foods, exercising, and even fasting are some of the natural ways to increase NAD. But excessive food intake and alcohol consumption are just some of the many reasons adults may find themselves lacking in NAD.
The bottom line
No matter which pathway or which precursor is used, the science is clear. NAD levels are vital to long-term health and healthy aging.
We’re living longer now than ever before. In a world where life spans have increased, focusing on how to improve the quality of life is essential. It’s extraordinary and encouraging to find that when it comes to aging better, we are much more empowered now than we were just a few years ago.
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Now that we’ve identified the pathways to increasing NAD production, we’re no longer at the mercy of our bodies’ declining output of this critical molecule. Anyone bold enough to use this knowledge and provide their bodies with the necessary supplements can fight back against aging.
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1. Grabowska W, Skiora E, Bielak-Zmijewska A. Sirtuins, a promising target in slowing down the ageing process. Biogerontology 2017 Aug;18(4):447-476. doi: 10.1007/s10522-017-9685-9. Epub 2017 Mar 3.
Financial disclosure: The author is the Chief Scientific Officer of ChromaDex, a nutritional supplement company that makes TruNiagen, a form of NR.