Many Americans take supplements and vitamins as a way to improve health, whether it be to build stronger bones, support the immune system or lower cholesterol levels. However, a new study led by the University of Missouri found a popular supplement may increase the risk of breast and brain cancer.
The supplement is called nicotinamide riboside (NR) also known as niagen, a form of vitamin B3. Known for its benefits to cardiovascular, metabolic and neurological health, it’s also sometimes used to reverse the signs of aging from inside of the body, according to the National Institutes of Health.
The body converts the supplement into nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, a coenzyme involved in many metabolic processes, Jeff Gladd, MD, a practicing integrative medicine physician and chief medical officer at Fullscript, told Seasons.
“Nicotinamide riboside has become an increasingly popular dietary supplement ingredient,” he said. “It is naturally found in trace amounts in certain foods, particularly milk-derived products.”
In spite of this, research from MU found high levels of NR could lead to an increased risk of developing triple-negative breast cancer and could cause the cancer to later metastasize or spread to the brain.
“We found that NR supplementation resulted in a significant increase of brain metastasis,” said Elena Goun, PhD, corresponding author of the study and associate professor of chemistry at the University of Missouri. “Importantly, our findings were consistent with previous work.”
Goun shared that some people take vitamins and supplements because they assume they have positive health benefits; however, very little is known about how they actually work.
“Because of this lack of knowledge, we were inspired to study the basic questions surrounding how vitamins and supplements work in the body,” she said.
The researchers used imaging technology to detect how NR supplementation affected cancer growth. According to Goun, they specifically used ultrasensitive bioluminescent-based probes to examine how much NR levels were present in cancer cells, T cells and healthy tissues within small animal models.
They found high levels of NR supplementation led to an increased risk of developing cancer; however, Goun and other experts say more research is needed to understand the exact reasons for how and why NR supplementation could enhance cancer prevalence and growth.
“The exact mechanism of how it enhances metastasis is still under investigation in our lab,” Goun said. “It is important to note that similar to all the health beneficiary studies on NR, our studies were done in small animal models that have limitations.”
Is it possible to take too much nicotinamide riboside?
More studies are needed to determine if there is a certain amount of NR that’s considered unsafe. Based on available research, there are certain doses that are considered “tolerable.”
“Several human trials have shown that doses up to 2,000 mg per day for 12 weeks are well tolerated and have not presented any side effects,” Gladd said.
If you have any questions about NR supplementation you should speak with your health care provider.
Should I stop taking certain supplements or vitamins?
Despite what the study found, the data has not yet been supported by human clinical trials. This means that if you’re taking vitamins or supplements that contain NR, you should not stop taking them without consulting with your health care provider first.
“Considering that we don’t have data from human trials and that this study involved a very small sample size of mice, it does not appear to be appropriate to extend wide sweeping generalizations to humans at this time,” Gladd said.
Furthermore, he added many of the current studies investigating the benefits of NR demonstrate favorable safety profiles of the supplement with minimal adverse effects in healthy adults.
In addition, Goun believes more information is needed before vitamins and supplements –including those that contain NR – are recommended to certain groups of people.
“We need to understand more how supplements work before we recommend them to certain patient populations such as elderly people,” Goun said.
In general, it’s important for caregivers and older adults to talk with their health care provider about any supplements they’re taking—not just those that contain NR.
“If you’re currently taking a supplement containing nicotinamide riboside, or if your practitioner has recommended that you take it, talk to them about any of your concerns, evaluate together your own personal risk of cancer and chronic disease and have a discussion weighing the potential risks and benefits,” Gladd said.