Are You Getting Enough Niacin?


Vitamin B3 plays a crucial role in heart health, energy production, gene expression, and hormone synthesis. In fact, humans cannot live without it.

Aside from its well-known heart-supporting benefits, it actually offers more than most would expect.

Vitamin B3, also known as niacin, nicotinic acid (and niacinamide) is a critical micronutrient that, when severely lacking in the diet, can result in the classic deficiency disease known as pellagra.

Pellagra is characterized by the presence of the "4 D's:" diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia, and death.

Niacin Deficiencies Cause Pellagra, a Deadly Disease

Pellagra was once common in the American South where corn was a staple of the diet. While corn provides a number of nutrients, its niacin content is of limited availability. Also, corn lacks the amino acid tryptophan which prevents pellagra.

Until pellagra was eliminated in the United States, the cause of the disease was unknown. The earliest description of pellagra dates back to 1735 when poor diet was suggested as a cause.

Although this assumption was correct, others believed that pellagra was an infectious disease and its sufferers, found mainly in poor areas, were ostracized. The epidemic ended when the U.S. began fortifying flour with niacin. Meanwhile an estimated 100,000 pellagra deaths occurred between 1906 and 1940.

While pellagra is rare in the United States today, it can still be found in areas of the world that suffer gross malnutrition. Even though severe deficiencies are uncommon in developed countries, subclinical nutrient deficiencies may still exist.

Niacin Lowers Cholesterol and Alleviates Symptoms of Schizophrenia

In the 1950s, Abram Hoffer, MD, PhD, and colleagues published a study titled, "Influence of nicotinic acid on serum cholesterol in man."1 It described the cholesterol-reducing effect of niacin.

Dr Hoffer, along with psychiatrist Humphry Osmond, also researched niacin and vitamin C as a treatment for some types of schizophrenia, which they believed was caused by a metabolite of adrenaline.2,3

Although Hoffer's hypothesis regarding niacin's use in schizophrenia has been attacked and discredited, many sufferers of this disease have reported success with mega doses of niacin.

It’s worth noting that niacin, sold as the prescription drug Niaspan, is still used as a treatment for elevated cholesterol.

How Much Niacin Do You Need?

Niacin is found in unrefined grains, liver, chicken, beef, venison, brewer's yeast and enriched grain products. It can also be found in dietary supplements.

Niacin (but not niacinamide) is notorious in high doses for eliciting a "flush," which involves a temporary reddening of the skin that may be accompanied by itching or tingling. The effect is harmless and even considered relaxing by many who use it.

Dividing the dose and taking niacin with food will minimize the flush. Elevated cholesterol and schizophrenia are treated with niacin doses of up to several grams per day; however, the average person's needs to prevent deficiencies are much lower at 14–16 mg per day. Niacin, as a water-soluble member of the B complex, is best consumed in divided doses throughout the day.

Before using high doses of niacin, be sure to check with your physician.

References:

  1. Arch Biochem Biophys. 1955 Feb;54(2):558-9. 
  2. J Clin Exp Psychopathol. 1957 Apr-Jun;18(2):131-58. 
  3. Lancet. 1962 Feb 10;(7224):316-9.

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