Niacin, also known as vitamin B-3, is one of the essential water-soluble vitamins. This means your body needs it, but it can’t produce it on its own. Niacin performs a number of functions in the body, including helping the body turn the food you eat each day into the fuel your body needs by helping to break carbohydrates down into glucose. It’s also involved in keeping the skin, eyes, hair, and liver healthy, producing certain hormones, limiting inflammation and improving circulation. Besides these functions, however, there are a number of potential niacin benefits for health.
Prevents Niacin Deficiency Symptoms
Niacin deficiency isn’t that common these days in the United States due to the fortification of flour, but it can cause some severe symptoms. Alcoholics are the group that is most likely to develop this condition in the United States, as the alcohol interferes with the body’s ability to absorb niacin. Those with digestive disorders or those taking a tuberculosis medication called isoniazid may also need to watch their niacin status. A mild case of niacin deficiency may make a person experience canker sores, fatigue, indigestion, vomiting, poor circulation and depression. More severe deficiencies can cause a condition called pellagra, which includes diarrhea, a bright red and swollen tongue, a burning feeling in the mouth, skin that is cracked and scaly and dementia. If not treated, it eventually leads to death.
Heart Disease and High Cholesterol
One of the major uses for prescription niacin is for helping to lower so-called “bad” cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Low-density lipoprotein, or LDL cholesterol, which is the unhealthy type, is only decreased by one type of niacin, however. Some niacin supplements contain niacinamide, which isn’t useful for this purpose. Some research has even shown that niacin may help increase high-density lipoprotein, or “good” cholesterol as well, further increasing the potential benefits of niacin.
Taking niacin along with a medication meant to decrease clogging of the arteries can help slow down this process and help to decrease the risk of a heart attack, while taking this vitamin along with certain types of statins may help limit the risk of stroke or heart attack.
When looking into the potential niacin health benefits, it’s important to note the potential effects of niacin on diabetes. Those with Type 1 diabetes may experience some benefits when niacin is taken in the form of niacinamide. The niacinamide helps keep the body’s immune system from accidentally destroying the insulin-producing cells found in the pancreas. However, it isn’t likely to help reduce the risk of diabetes and can actually increase blood sugar levels in some cases, making diabetes worse, so diabetics shouldn’t take any type of niacin without checking with their doctor.
Of course, the amount of niacin found in foods isn’t going to be harmful, as the recommended daily intake needs to be met for the body to be able to perform all its functions. Only high doses, such as those found in supplements and prescription versions of niacin need to be avoided.
Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia
Recent research has shown some potential health benefits of niacin in terms of decreasing the risk for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Basically, people who have diets that are higher in niacin appear to be less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. It still isn’t clear whether supplements of niacin provide the same potential benefits, such as an increase in cognitive function or at least a slower decline.
High cholesterol may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s, so it makes sense that niacin, which can lower cholesterol, may be associated with a decreased risk in Alzheimer’s disease. If you’d like to get more niacin in your diet, it’s not too hard. Good sources include meat (especially liver and kidney meat), fish, beets, peanuts, sunflower seeds, beans, tea, coffee and many fortified grain products, including breads and cereals.
Potential Side Effects
In order to lower disease risk, niacin or niacinamide usually needs to be taken in medicinal doses. These high doses can have side effects, as with any medication. Niacinamide doesn’t have as many side effects, but isn’t necessarily as beneficial. Potential niacin side effects include flushing, headaches, itching, redness, bloating or stomach discomfort, diarrhea, insomnia, dizziness, shortness of breath, jaundice, muscle pain or tenderness, liver damage and stomach ulcers.
Sometimes taking an aspirin about half an hour before taking niacin will help to limit the flushing and tingling side effects, and avoiding alcohol and hot beverages can also be helpful. Alcohol can increase the adverse effects of niacin on the liver. Keep in mind that there are also potential side effects due to medication interactions. Niacin can interact with the antibiotic tetracycline, blood thinners, anti-seizure medications, bile acid sequestrant medications for lowering cholesterol, certain types of blood pressure medications and nicotine patches.
It’s also important not to take high amounts of niacin when not under a doctor’s supervision, as niacin can be toxic in higher doses. Stick to the recommended dietary allowance of 14 milligrams per day for women and 16 milligrams per day for men unless a doctor prescribes a higher amount.