The Benefits of Niacin (Vitamin B3): Food Sources and Risks

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    Niacin, one of the 8 B vitamins, is a powerful nutrient that our bodies rely on. From heart health to cognition, it offers numerous benefits for our bodies.

    Within the family of B vitamins, each with its unique roles and benefits, niacin shines with its own distinct contributions to our health and well-being. Every single cell in our body relies on this essential nutrient for energy production and the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Without it, we simply wouldn’t be able to reap the benefits of the nutritious foods we consume. Yet niacin’s health benefits reach far beyond just energy production. In this article, we will dive into the science behind niacin’s purported health benefits, the best food sources of niacin, and any risks associated with its consumption. So, let’s unravel everything we need to know about this impressive vitamin.

    What is Niacin?

    Niacin, otherwise known as vitamin B3, is just one of the many B vitamins that our bodies need to function properly. Niacin is a water-soluble vitamin, meaning that the body does not have the ability to store it for later use; thus it must be consumed via food sources or supplements on a regular basis. This nutrient exists in various forms, including niacinamide, nicotinamide, and inositol hexanicotinate.

    The main role of niacin is its contribution to the conversion of NAD and NADP – essential coenzymes that support mitochondrial health. By steadfastly supporting the mitochondria, niacin becomes a driving force behind the production of energy within our cells.

    Understanding How Niacin Works in the Body

    When we consume food, those nutrients don’t just magically transform into energy. There are a number of complex processes that need to happen in order for this transformation to occur. This is where niacin, or vitamin B3, comes into play. It actively participates in metabolic processes, facilitating the conversion of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins into usable energy sources for our cells. By breaking down these macronutrients, the cells and tissues in our bodies have the fuel they need to carry out their diverse functions.

    Recognizing Niacin Deficiency: Symptoms and Risks

    Developing a niacin deficiency is quite rare, as this vitamin is naturally found in many of the foods we eat. If you consume a balanced diet, it would be unlikely that you would develop a deficiency, but it’s still good to know what the signs, symptoms, and risk factors are.

    The most likely cause of a niacin deficiency is a lack of niacin and/or tryptophan in the diet. This is because tryptophan, an essential amino acid, is a precursor for the production of niacin. Tryptophan is rich in foods like turkey, chicken, milk, canned tuna, cheese, and oats.

    Some of the most common symptoms associated with niacin deficiency include loose stools, cognitive issues, and skin changes. However, these symptoms can be caused by various factors and are not exclusive to B3 deficiency. Thus, it would be best to consult your doctor if you are experiencing any of these symptoms. That way, your doctor can perform appropriate lab tests to assess your niacin levels accurately.

    The recommended daily dosage of niacin ranges from 14-18 mg per day, depending on a few factors, such as age and sex. The recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) for this essential vitamin are outlined below:

    • Women: 14 mg
    • Men: 16 mg
    • Breastfeeding: 17 mg
    • Pregnant: 18 mg

    Niacin's Role in Cardiovascular Health

    Niacin has the potential to be a powerful component when it comes to cardiovascular health. Research has shown that niacin may be able to help maintain healthy cholesterol levels (already within normal range). In fact, this study mentions that niacin supplementation can increase the levels of HDL, which is commonly referred to as the “good” cholesterol. However, the same study states that although niacin may help maintain healthy cholesterol levels, dietary supplements should not replace any pharmaceuticals.

    Alongside niacin, there are a few other lifestyle factors that have been shown to contribute to a healthy heart. Adopting a balanced diet that includes consuming fish at least twice a week, engaging in regular exercise, ensuring adequate sleep, managing stress, and avoiding tobacco products can synergistically support all aspects of your cardiovascular system.

    Nourishing Skin and Hair with Niacin

    Beyond just supporting our internal health, niacin has the potential to also enhance external features, like our hair and skin. Specifically, a study done with human hair cells has suggested that niacin may contribute to hair fullness by managing oxidative stress and managing the hair growth cycle, specifically in the catagen stage.

    In addition, you may have noticed that vitamin B3, in the form of niacinamide, is added to many skincare and beauty products. This is because it has been associated with providing anti-aging effects, as well as enhancing the function of our skin’s elasticity.

    Boosting Cognitive Function

    One of the most prevalent symptoms of niacin deficiency is impaired cognitive function, which is another reason to maintain adequate levels of this vitamin. Furthermore, niacin's benefits go beyond, as it may possess neuroprotective properties. Studies have suggested that niacin's involvement in cellular metabolism could contribute to the maintenance of healthy brain functioning, as well as supporting neuronal health.

    Top Food Sources Rich in Niacin

    Niacin can be found in a wide variety of foods, with beef liver being one of the richest sources. Niacin can also be found in other animal proteins, like chicken breast, turkey breast, salmon, and canned tuna. Additionally, marinara sauce provides a surprising dose of niacin, containing just as much of this vitamin as the other animal meats.

    Legumes, including lentils, chickpeas, and beans, offer not only plant-based protein but also a generous supply of niacin. In addition, peanuts and almonds are considered excellent sources.

    Potential Side Effects and Risks of Niacin Supplementation

    One potential side effect of niacin supplementation is flushing, which is a temporary redness and warmth of the skin. Flushing occurs when the blood vessels beneath the surface of the skin dilate and fill with more blood. But, this is more likely to occur with high doses of niacin. However, not all forms of niacin induce flushing. For instance, nicotinamide is well-tolerated and does not result in this flushing effect.

    Deciding Whether to Supplement with Niacin

    Before deciding to supplement with niacin, there are a few factors to consider. For one, consulting your doctor is always recommended, as your doctor can evaluate your diet and perform any lab tests to determine whether a supplement would be right for you.

    Most individuals can get adequate niacin through their diet. However, if you follow a diet that is low in animal proteins, nuts, legumes, and some grains, you may not be obtaining proper amounts. Moreover, if your diet is lacking iron, riboflavin, or vitamin B6, you may be at higher risk, as those nutrients are necessary for the conversion of tryptophan to niacin. This study reports that 3.3% of tryptophan gets converted to niacin.

    The Bottom Line

    Niacin, otherwise referred to as vitamin B3, is an essential water-soluble vitamin that is necessary for a variety of bodily functions. From its role in energy production and cardiovascular health to its potential benefits for skin, hair, and cognitive function, niacin proves to be a critical nutrient with multifaceted benefits. Niacin can be found in a variety of food sources, the best ones being beef liver, chicken, turkey, nuts, legumes, and marinara sauce. While incorporating niacin-rich foods into our diet is the preferred method of ensuring adequate intake, niacin supplementation may be considered for individuals with deficiencies. It’s always best to speak with your doctor before starting any new supplements, especially if you have any underlying health conditions.

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    Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS
    Medical Content Manager
    Dr. Montrond-Correia is a licensed naturopathic physician and a certified nutrition specialist (CNS). She holds degrees from University of Bridgeport, Georgetown University, and University of Saint Joseph, and supplemented her education with internships in the health and wellness space. She's focused on research, herbal medicine, nutrigenomics, and integrative and functional medicine. She makes time for exercise, artistic activities, and enjoying delicious food.
    Jordana Tobelem, RD
    Freelance Contributor
    Jordana Tobelem is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys helping others become the best versions of themselves through proper nutrition education. Jordana is passionate about promoting lifestyle changes through nutrition, physical activity, and behavior to create a superior quality of life. She uses her experience in the clinical field of dietetics to provide consulting services to an array of healthcare brands and companies. Jordana loves finding the most current research in nutrition to create meaningful content to share with her clients. Jordana has been a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics since 2018 and also holds certifications in both Personal Training and Health Coaching.