Monday, June 7, 2010

Niacin turbocharges the growth hormone response to anaerobic exercise: A delayed effect

Niacin is also known as vitamin B3, or nicotinic acid. It is an essential vitamin whose deficiency leads to pellagra. In large doses of 1 to 3 g per day it has several effects on blood lipids, including an increase in HDL cholesterol and a marked decreased in fasting triglycerides. Niacin is also a powerful antioxidant.

Among niacin’s other effects, when taken in large doses of 1 to 3 g per day, is an acute elevation in growth hormone secretion. This is a delayed effect, frequently occurring 3 to 5 hours after taking niacin. This effect is independent of exercise.

It is important to note that large doses of 1 to 3 g of niacin are completely unnatural, and cannot be achieved by eating foods rich in niacin. For example, one would have to eat a toxic amount of beef liver (e.g., 15 lbs) to get even close to 1 g of niacin. Beef liver is one of the richest natural sources of niacin.

Unless we find out something completely unexpected about the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors in the future, we can safely assume that they never benefited from the niacin effects discussed in this post.

With that caveat, let us look at yet another study on niacin and its effect on growth hormone. Stokes and colleagues (2008) conducted a study suggesting that, in addition to the above mentioned beneficial effects of niacin, there is another exercise-induced effect: niacin “turbocharges” the growth hormone response to anaerobic exercise. The full reference to the study is at the end of this post. Figure 3, shown below, illustrates the effect and its magnitude. Click on it to enlarge.

The closed diamond symbols represent the treatment group. In it, participants ingested a total of 2 g of niacin in three doses: 1 g ingested at 0 min, 0.5 g at 120 min, and 0.5 g at 240 min. The control group ingested no niacin, and is represented by the open square symbols. (The researchers did not use a placebo in the control group; they justified this decision by noting that the niacin flush nullified the benefits of using a placebo.) The arrows indicate points at which all-out 30-second cycle ergometer sprints occurred.

Ignore the lines showing the serum growth hormone levels in between 120 and 300 min; they were not measured within that period.

As you can see, the peak growth hormone response to the first sprint was almost two times higher in the niacin group. In the second sprint, at 300 min, the rise in growth hormone is about 5 times higher in the niacin group.

We know that growth hormone secretion may rise 300 percent with exercise, without niacin. According to this study, this effect may be “turbocharged” up to a 600 percent rise with niacin within 300 min (5 h) of taking it, and possibly 1,500 percent soon after 300 min passed since taking niacin.

That is, not only does niacin boost growth hormone secretion anytime after it is taken, but one still gets the major niacin increase in growth hormone at around 300 min of taking it (which is about the same, whether you exercise or not). Its secretion level at this point is, by the way, higher than its highest level typically reached during deep sleep.

Let me emphasize that the peak growth hormone level achieved in the second sprint is about the same you would get without exercise, namely a bit more than 20 micrograms per liter, as long as you took niacin (see Quabbe's articles at the end of this post).

Still, if you time your exercise session to about 300 min after taking niacin you may have some extra benefits, because getting that peak growth hormone secretion at the time you are exercising may help boost some of the benefits of exercise.

For example, the excess growth hormone secretion may reduce muscle catabolism and increase muscle anabolism, at the same time, leading to an increase in muscle gain. However, there is evidence that growth hormone-induced muscle gain occurs only when testosterone levels are elevated. This explains why growth hormone levels are usually higher in young women than young men, and yet young women do not put on much muscle in response to exercise.


Stokes, K.A., Tyler, C., & Gilbert, K.L. (2008). The growth hormone response to repeated bouts of sprint exercise with and without suppression of lipolysis in men. Journal of Applied Physiology, 104(3), 724-728.