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Vitamin B3 (Niacin) benefits, side effects and natural sources

vitamin b3

Vitamin B3 is one of the eight B vitamins (vitamin B complex). Also known as niacin, vitamin B3 exists in two other forms or structures – niacinamide, also known as nicotinamide, and inositol hexanicotinate. These two forms possess dissimilar effects from niacin.

All vitamins B are involved in helping the body convert carbohydrates into glucose which is used by our body as energy. Vitamin B3 also helps our body use fats and protein. These B vitamins are water-soluble.

What are water-soluble vitamins?

vitamin b3

Water-soluble vitamins (All 8 B vitamins and vitamin C All 8 B vitamins and vitamin C) aren’t stored in the body; our body absorbs what it needs and then usually discharges the surplus through urine. Since they are not stored in the body, water-soluble vitamins must be taken through diet, supplements or a combination of both.

Water-soluble vitamins are present in fruits, vegetables and grains. They can be spoiled by heat or from exposure to air. These vitamins can be lost in water that we use for cooking. When we cook foods containing B vitamins we lose much of the vitamin, specifically when we boil them. The best way to prepare foods with vitamins B are to steam or grill them, this prevents loss of much of the nutrients.

B vitamins are needed for a healthy skin, healthy liver, good vision, healthy hair, and for the appropriate functioning of the nervous system.

Why do we need niacin?

Niacin plays an important role in making stress and sex hormones in the body. Our body needs niacin to improve circulation and suppress inflammation.

In order to maintain good health, it’s crucial for the body to have adequate niacin. High volume of niacin is used for lowering LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol).

Cholesterol control

vitamin b3

A wide range of studies have shown that vitamin B3 can increase HDL cholesterol (“good” cholesterol) levels, lower LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) levels and lower triglycerides. Healthcare professionals sometimes prescribe it in combination with statins like Lescol, Crestor, or Lipitor to control cholesterol. But, for treating cholesterol, high doses of niacin is required in order to be effective. High doses of niacin can cause side effects such as liver damage, gastrointestinal problems, or glucose intolerance. Therefore, individuals trying to treat themselves should refrain from using over-the-counter niacin supplements.

Niacin has been shown to help some individuals with atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). In people who already had a heart attack, niacin has been shown to lower their chances of having a second one.

Diabetes treatment

vitamin b3

Niacin’s ability to stabilize blood sugar levels makes it a viable option for treating diabetes. Scientists believe that the niacinamide form of vitamin B3 can help enhance efficacy of particular oral medications that are used to regulate diabetes.

Most diabetics who used niacin were able to better control their glucose levels and lower their risk of high cholesterol levels and heart disease. Niacin is a proven technique for lowering LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol).

However, it should be noted that researchers suspect niacin for being involved in causing complications with elevated blood sugar levels. To avoid unwanted side effects from niacin, anyone with condition related to high blood glucose levels should consult their doctor before taking niacin supplements.

Aids in proper brain function

vitamin b3

Studies have shown that niacin can help shield against Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative disorders.

Niacin has also been correlated with improving brain function in the elderly, improve age-related cognitive impairment, such as memory, chronic brain syndrome, migraine headaches, depression, insomnia, motion sickness, and even alcohol dependency.

Healthcare professionals often use niacin or niacinamide for treating and preventing hallucinations and schizophrenia. Studies have also correlated niacin use with reduced risk of attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).  

Maintains healthy skin

vitamin b3

Niacin helps to decrease skin inflammation, irritation, flare ups, redness, and more.

Doctors often prescribe topical use of niacinamide for treating acne, specifically very painful and inflamed form of acne known as inflammatory acne vulgaris. Some people opt for supplements made from niacin or vitamin B complex to ease their symptoms.

Vitamin B3 is also used for treating two types of skin diseases called granuloma annulare and pemphigoid. These inflammation-triggered skin conditions involve very painful skin blistering that cause infection.

Treats Pellagra

Niacin is an FDA approved supplement to treat pellagra, a rare health condition that causes skin inflammation, diarrhea, sores in the mouth, and dementia. The disease is commonly mainly caused by low levels of B vitamins. Pellagra can be fatal, and the patient can die within several years if vitamin B3 levels aren’t restored.

High doses of niacinamide is given to people stricken with pellagra. Niacinamide is slightly different than niacin in terms of side effects and absorption, but has the same vitamin function.

Improves joint mobility and symptoms of arthritis

vitamin b3

According to some research niacinamide can effectively improve joint mobility. Studies have also correlated niacin with reduced joint pain, increased muscle strength, and lessening symptoms related to muscle or joint fatigue.

High doses of niacinamide have been shown to boost flexibility and decrease swelling, enabling some niacin users to cut down on medications and painkillers for arthritis.

Because of its anti-inflammatory effects, niacin is usually prescribed in high doses for treating osteoarthritis or joint pain. Reduction in inflammation aids in lowering arthritis symptoms from appearing and rebuilding the joint cartilage which is important for mobility and strength.

Can help prevent erectile dysfunction

Erectile dysfunction may be partially due to poor blood flow and circulation. Other factors such as fatigue, stress, and illness may be responsible for the disorder.

Niacin acts as a vasodilator that increases blood flow to the genital area. Some doctors recommend 250 mg of niacin supplements 3 times a day.

Recommended daily allowance (RDA)

According to the USDA, the RDA for niacin is as follows:

Children: 2 to 16 mg/day, depending on age

Men: 16 mg/day

Women: 14 mg/day

Pregnant and breastfeeding women 17 to 18 mg/day

Most people can get the amount of niacin needed from a healthy diet

Is it safe to take niacin?

For most individuals niacin is considered safe when taken by mouth. A minor side effect of niacin intake is a flushing reaction that causes tingling, burning, redness of the face, arms, and chest, and headaches.

Other minor side effects of taking niacin and niacinamide are dizziness, stomach upset, intestinal gas, pain in the mouth, and other problems.

Side effects

Allergies. People with allergies may have their symptoms worsen with niacin intake, which may cause histamine to be released.

Heart disease. Niacin, in high doses, may increase the risk of dysrhythmia (irregular heartbeat).

Gallbladder disease. Niacin intake may worsen symptoms of gallbladder disease.

Diabetes. Niacin may cause blood sugar levels to shoot up.

Kidney disease. Niacin might amass in people with kidney disease, causing injury.

Liver disease. Niacin might worsen symptoms of liver disease. Anyone with liver disease should refrain from taking high doses of niacin.

Thyroid disorders. Niacin might aggravate some symptoms of thyroid disorder.

Ulcers. Niacin might worsen stomach or intestinal ulcers.

Blood pressure. Niacin might reduce blood pressure to a level that isn’t considered healthy.

Surgery. Niacin might interfere blood sugar control before and after surgery.

Symptoms of niacin deficiency

Symptoms of mild niacin deficiency may be:

Indigestion

Vomiting

Canker sores

Depression

Pellagra is a condition caused by severe deficiency of niacin. Symptoms of pellagra may include:

Thick rash, scaly pigments on the skin.

Diarrhea

Vomiting

Red tongue

Swollen mouth

Depression

Fatigue

Headache

Disorientation

Memory loss

What are the natural sources of niacin?

Some of the best natural sources of niacin include shiitake mushrooms, turkey, chicken (preferably free range), halibut, salmon, and tuna (because of mercury content take chlorella at the same time), grass-fed beef, asparagus, beets, peanuts and green peas. A wide variety of plants also contain small amounts of vitamin B3

As a snack, organic sunflower seeds are a good choice because they are also loaded with other B vitamins like riboflavin, thiamin, B6 and folate.

vitamin b3

Beef liver (3 oz.): provides 14.2 mg or 89% of Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA)

vitamin b3

Chicken breast (3 oz.): provides 12.3 mg or 76% of RDA

vitamin b3

Tuna (1 can, about 3 oz.): provides 11.3 mg or 71% of RDA

vitamin b3

Sunflower seeds (1 cup): provides 9 mg or 56% or RDA

vitamin b3

Beef (grass fed, 3 oz.): provides 9 mg or 56% or RDA

vitamin b3

Lamb (cooked, 3 oz.): provides 6.9 mg or 43% of RDA

vitamin b3

Salmon (3 oz.): provides 6.7 mg or 42% of RDA

vitamin b3

Split peas (1 cup): provides 5.7 mg or 35% of RDA

vitamin b3

Mushrooms (1 cup): provides 7.6 mg

vitamin b3

Sardines (1 can in oil): provides 4.8 mg or 30% or RDA

vitamin b3

Turkey (3 oz.): provides 4 mg or 25% of RDA

vitamin b3

Tahini paste (1 tbsp): provides 2.2 mg or 14% of RDA

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Salahuddin Ahmed is a freelance medical writer and blogger, who has been writing about medicine and health for more than a decade. A former New York transplant, he now lives in his native Dhaka. He received a Bachelor's degree from the University of Louisiana and a diploma on eTechnology from NIIT, Dhaka. A voracious eater, Salahuddin only dines at restaurants that offer free refills on rice.

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