How Vitamin B3 Works


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Vitamin B3 has been used in the treatment of numerous diseases. It's available in several different forms, and some are safer than others, making supplementation a confusing issue. In this article, we'll take a look at the therapeutic benefits of niacin, and we'll learn about getting enough niacin in your diet through food and supplements. Here's a preview:

  • What Is Vitamin B3?

    Vitamin B3, or niacin, works with other b-complex vitamins to metabolize food and provide energy for the body. Niacin was first discovered by researchers looking for a link between diet and the disease pellagra. They determined that pellagra was common among people with a corn-based diet, and they were able to treat the disease with nicotinic acid, a form of niacin.

  • Benefits of Vitamin B3

    Niacin is very effective at correcting high cholesterol and preventing or reversing heart disease. It can be used to treat insulin-dependent diabetes. It might also be effective in treating arthritis and migraine headaches. However, taking niacin supplements in high doses can be dangerous to your health.

  • Foods That Contain Vitamin B3

    Niacin is found in foods with a high protein content, such as meat, eggs, and peanuts. It can also be found in milk, mushrooms, and greens. Niacin is added to "enriched" breads and cereals.

  • Vitamin B3 Deficiency

    A niacin deficiency causes pellagra, a disease that is characterized by red, rough skin, weakness, loss of appetite, and digestive disturbances. If left untreated, pellagra can be fatal.

  • Vitamin B3 Supplements

    Niacin can be used to treat many illnesses and ailments, but too much niacin causes serious liver problems. Do not take niacin supplements unless you are under the supervision of a health care professional.
Niacin is just one of many essential nutrients that need to be a part of your diet. For more information, visit these links.
  • Vitamin A, or retinol, plays a vital role in vision. Learn more in How Vitamin A Works.
  • A vitamin B1, or thiamin, deficiency results in the disease beriberi. Learn more in How Vitamin B1 Works.
  • In How Vitamin B2 Works, read about how B2, or riboflavin, works in concert with its B-complex relatives to metabolize carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
  • Vitamin B5, or pantothenic acid, can be found in all living cells and in all foods. Learn about its importance to your diet in How Vitamin B5 Works.
  • Vitamin B6 is actually three substances, pyridoxine, pyridoxamine, and pyridoxal, that work to metabolize protein and amino acids. Read more in How Vitamin B6 Works.
  • To learn about the many vitamins in our diet, how much you should be eating, and where to find them, go to our general Vitamins page.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

What Is Vitamin B3?

In the early part of the 18th century, a disease characterized by red, rough skin began to appear in Europe. Almost 200 years later, the disease was still a scourge -- at least for people in the southern United States. The disease, called pellagra, was almost epidemic in the South by the early parts of the 1900s. It was so common that many believed it was an infectious disease spread from person to person. Others thought that flies or eating spoiled corn could cause it. Outbreaks of the malady were often more severe in the spring months when flies hatched.

In 1915, researchers linked the disease pellagra with a corn-based diet.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
In 1915, researchers linked the disease pellagra with a corn-based diet.
Few people believed that pellagra was a simple dietary deficiency, even though corn-based diets apparently made people susceptible to the disease.

One person who did notice was Dr. Joseph Goldberger. He proved the link between diet and disease by experimenting with the diets of children in a Mississippi orphanage who suffered from pellagra and 11 volunteers from a Mississippi prison farm. In both groups, when Goldberger added lean meat, milk, eggs, or yeast, their symptoms vanished.

This was in 1915, yet many physicians remained skeptical until 1937 when Conrad Elvehjem and his coworkers at the University of Wisconsin cured dogs with symptoms similar to pellagra by giving them nicotinic acid -- a form of niacin. Soon doctors were using nicotinic acid, a form of niacin, to cure pellagra in humans.

Functions of Vitamin B3

Like the other B vitamins -- thiamin and riboflavin -- niacin acts as a coenzyme, assisting other substances in the conversion of protein, carbohydrate, and fat into energy.

Niacin has a wide range of therapeutic uses -- it has been used to treat high cholesterol, insulin-dependent diabetes, arthritis, and even migraines. Keep reading to learn more about the benefits of niacin.

Niacin is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to good nutrition. Visit these links to learn more about the vitamins your body needs.
  • In How Biotin Works, learn how biotin acts as a coenzyme in several metabolic reactions, such as the metabolism of fats and carbohydrates.
  • Read How Folate Works to learn about folacin, folic acid, and folate and how a folate deficiency can cause megaloblastic anemia.
  • Vitamin B12, also called cyanocobalamin or cobalamin, is essential because it assists folate in making DNA and RNA. Read more in How Vitamin B12 Works.
  • Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is good for more than just easing the common cold. Learn more in How Vitamin C Works.
  • Vitamin D is necessary to hold of rickets, but if you get enough sunshine, your body can make its own vitamin D supply. Learn more in How Vitamin D Works.

  • To learn about the many vitamins in our diet, how much you should be eating, and where to find them, go to our general Vitamins page.
  • To find the best prices on B vitamin supplements, click here.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Benefits of Vitamin B3

Vitamin B3 is available in three forms: nicotinic acid (also called nicotinate) and niacinamide (also called nicotinamide), both found in food and supplements; and inositol hexaniacinate, a form available only in supplements. Nicotinic acid and inositol hexaniacinate are both useful in reducing blood cholesterol levels. Niacinamide is helpful for some people with insulin-dependent diabetes and perhaps for arthritis sufferers.

Large doses of nicotinic acid -- 100 mg to 1,000 mg (1 g) daily -- are effective in lowering blood levels of triglycerides and the "bad" low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, while increasing blood levels of the "good" high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. This makes niacin an important tool in preventing or reversing heart disease. Niacin raises HDL cholesterol levels significantly more than the commonly used drug lovastatin. Although lovastatin lowers LDL cholesterol levels more than niacin does, the niacin also lowers blood levels of another lipid factor called Lp(a); researchers believe that elevated Lp(a) levels are an additional risk for cardiovascular disease.

When oat bran is added to the niacin regime, most people get even more impressive results. Kidney transplant patients, who often have high cholesterol levels, also see dramatic benefits from taking niacin. But niacin (as nicotinic acid) in doses higher than 500 mg daily can cause severe side effects, including liver damage, diabetes, gastritis, and an elevation in blood levels of uric acid (which can cause gout). So researchers and nutrition experts developed inositol hexaniacinate. Inositol hexaniacinate acts like niacin to lower cholesterol but without the severe side effects. People are able to supplement daily with doses up to 3000 mg (3 g) without risk of liver or stomach inflammation, nor does the supplement increase the risk of diabetes or gout.

Niacin is used to treat many ailments, including insulin-dependent diabetes.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
Niacin is used to treat many
ailments, including high
cholesterol.

Insulin-dependent diabetes usually starts before the age of 20. Experts currently believe that diabetes can sometimes be caused as a result of an autoimmune response. The body attacks the insulin-making cells of its own pancreas, destroying them and robbing the body of insulin production. Sometimes prednisone is used to suppress the immune system and stop or slow down this process. Prednisone is a steroid drug and has many unwanted side effects, including elevating blood glucose levels. Researchers report that niacin, in the niacinamide form, may be even more effective than prednisone and much safer. Niacin blocks certain immune factors from destroying the crucial insulin-releasing cells. It also improves insulin production and sensitivity.

Numerous clinical studies show great promise for niacinamide. When given early during the onset of diabetes, it seems to help restore the insulin-producing cells. Patients go longer without needing insulin, use less insulin when it is needed, and have better blood glucose control. Other studies combined niacinamide with various immunosuppressive drugs, but results were not as good as with niacin alone. Since niacin can interfere with glucose tolerance, people with diabetes should not self-medicate. Work with a nutritionally trained medical doctor or registered dietician to be on the safe side.

Niacinamide may also help arthritis patients, particularly those with osteoarthritis, the most common form of this disease. Hundreds of patients report improvement after taking large doses -- up to 200 mg daily.

Some headache specialists prescribe Vitamin B3 in daily doses of 150 mg to help treat migraines, in the hopes that the dilating effects of niacin will help stabilize the overdilating-constricting cycle of cerebral blood vessels.

In the past, it was thought that Vitamin B3 might be beneficial for schizophrenia. Treatment results were so inconsistent, however, that niacin therapy is no longer attempted except in therapeutic trials while patients are in the hospital or other long-term care facility.

The best sources of Vitamin B3 are foods with a high protein content, such as meat, eggs, and peanuts. Go to the next page to learn more about foods that are rich in niacin.

Niacin isn't the only nutrient you need to maintain good health. Check out these links to learn more about vitamins that need to be part of your diet.
  • Vitamin A, or retinol, plays a vital role in vision. Learn more in How Vitamin A Works.
  • A vitamin B1, or thiamin, deficiency results in the disease beriberi. Learn more in How Vitamin B1 Works.
  • In How Vitamin B2 Works, read about how B2, or riboflavin, works in concert with its B-complex relatives to metabolize carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
  • In How Vitamin E Works, learn about this important antioxidant with far-reaching health benefits.
  • Vitamin K is important in allowing your blood to clot properly. Learn more in How Vitamin K Works.

  • To learn about the many vitamins in our diet, how much you should be eating, and where to find them, go to our general Vitamins page.
  • To find the best prices on B vitamin supplements, click here.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Foods That Contain Vitamin B3

The vitamin B3 we get from food includes preformed niacin and the amino acid tryptophan, which can be converted to niacin in the body. Food composition tables, however, list only preformed niacin. Niacin equivalent is the term used to refer to either 1 mg of niacin or to 60 mg of tryptophan (it takes 60 mg of tryptophan to make 1 mg of niacin).

Most proteins contain tryptophan. In the average protein-rich American diet, tryptophan provides about 60 percent of the niacin you need. If a diet is adequate in protein, then it will surely supply enough niacin equivalents from both sources to meet daily needs. The best sources of niacin are foods with a high protein content, such as meat, eggs, and peanuts. Other good sources of vitamin B3 equivalents, such as milk, actually provide more tryptophan than niacin. Mushrooms and greens are good vegetable sources. Vitamin B3 is also added to enriched breads and cereals to replace that lost during processing.

Diets that are adequate in protein will most likely supply enough niacin to satisfy your daily needs.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
Diets that are adequate in protein will most likely supply enough niacin
 to satisfy your daily needs.

Dietary Requirements for Vitamin B3

The RDA takes into account both preformed niacin and that available from tryptophan. Together they account for the recommendation of 6.6 mg of niacin for each 1,000 calories eaten. For women, this should total no less than 14 mg and for men 16 mg (niacin equivalents). Pregnant and lactating women require slightly more. Human milk contains about 7 niacin equivalents per 1,000 calories, which is enough for infants.

Use this chart to find foods that are rich in niacin:

 Food Quantity
Niacin (mg)
 Peanut halves, roasted, salted  1 cup  20.6
 Product 19 cereal  1 ounce  20
 Tuna, canned, water drained  31/2 ounces  12.2
 Chicken, white meat, no skin  31/2 ounces  9.5
 Beef liver  3 ounces  9.1
 Turkey, all meat, no skin  31/2 ounces  7.3
 Lamb chops, cooked  31/2 ounces  6.1
 Beef round, bottom, broiled  4 ounces  5.3
 Cheerios cereal  1 ounce  5
 Ground beef  3 ounces  5

A niacin deficiency brings on the disease pellagra, which causes weakness, loss of appetite, and rough, red skin. Go to the next page to learn more about the symptoms of a niacin deficiency.

Niacin
isn't the only vitamin you need to maintain overall health. Visit these links to learn about other essentail nutrients you need to include in your diet.
  • Vitamin B5, or pantothenic acid, can be found in all living cells and in all foods. Learn about its importance to your diet in How Vitamin B5 Works.
  • Vitamin B6 is actually three substances, pyridoxine, pyridoxamine, and pyridoxal, that work to metabolize protein and amino acids. Read more in How Vitamin B6 Works.
  • In How Biotin Works, learn how biotin acts as a coenzyme in several metabolic reactions, such as the metabolism of fats and carbohydrates.
  • Read How Folate Works to learn about folacin, folic acid, and folate and how a folate deficiency can cause megaloblastic anemia.
  • Vitamin B12, also called cyanocobalamin or cobalamin, is essential because it assists folate in making DNA and RNA. Read more in How Vitamin B12 Works.

  • To learn about the many vitamins in our diet, how much you should be eating, and where to find them, go to our general Vitamins page.
  • To find the best prices on B vitamin supplements, click here.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Vitamin B3 Deficiency

The first symptoms of pellagra are weakness, loss of appetite, and some digestive disturbances. As the deficiency disease progresses, the skin becomes rough and red in areas exposed to sunlight, heat, or irritation. Later, open sores, diarrhea, dementia, and delirium may develop. And finally, death results if the condition is left untreated.

As pellagra progress, skin exposed to the sunlight can become red and irritated.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
As pellagra progress, skin exposed to the sunlight can become red and irritated.
This disease, now rarely seen in the United States, is still common in parts of the world where corn is the major cereal grain. Corn is low in tryptophan, and the niacin it contains is difficult to absorb. In Latin American countries, they combine cornmeal with the mineral lime when making tortillas; the alkalinity of the lime frees the niacin so that it can be absorbed.

Vitamin B3 supplements are taken for a number of conditions, but the treatment is risky -- niacin supplements should not be taken unless you're under the supervision of a health care professional. Keep reading to learn more about Vitamin B3 supplements.

Niacin is just one of the many essential nutrients necessary for good health. Follow these links to learn more about the vitamins your body needs.
  • Vitamin B12, also called cyanocobalamin or cobalamin, is essential because it assists folate in making DNA and RNA. Read more in How Vitamin B12 Works.
  • Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is good for more than just easing the common cold. Learn more in How Vitamin C Works.
  • Vitamin D is necessary to hold of rickets, but if you get enough sunshine, your body can make its own vitamin D supply. Learn more in How Vitamin D Works.
  • In How Vitamin E Works, learn about this important antioxidant with far-reaching health benefits.
  • Vitamin K is important in allowing your blood to clot properly. Learn more in How Vitamin K Works.

  • To learn about the many vitamins in our diet, how much you should be eating, and where to find them, go to our general Vitamins page.
  • To find the best prices on B vitamin supplements, click here.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Vitamin B3 Supplements

Do not take niacin supplements if you are not under the supervision of a health care professional.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
Do not take niacin supplements if
you are not under the supervision
 of a health care professional.

Taking vitamin B3 for various conditions is a tricky business and should not be undertaken without the supervision of a health care professional. Used in large doses, such as those required to affect blood cholesterol levels, niacin is no longer working as a vitamin but as a drug, and significant side effects can occur.

Doses of 75 mg or more cause blood-vessel dilation, which can result in tingling, itching, and flushing of the face, neck, and chest -- a condition called niacin flush. It is uncomfortable but not dangerous. Starting with 50 to 75 mg three times per day and slowly increasing the amount can help minimize this problem. Also, many people find that by taking an 83 mg aspirin with the niacin, the flushing is greatly reduced. Aim to reach the full dose desired by six weeks; always take it with meals to avoid gastric irritation and nausea. If you want to find the
best prices on B vitamin supplements, click here.

Inositol hexaniacinate has very few side effects. People's blood cholesterol levels go down, HDL cholesterol levels go up, and there are no flushing symptoms or liver problems. Again, seek professional supervision and remember to start slowly. Take about 500 mg three times per day for two to three weeks, then increase to 1,000 mg three times per day. Take it with meals for best results.

Doses used for children who were starting to develop insulin-dependent diabetes ranged from 100 to 200 mg per day. Adult doses are based on weight: approximately 11.5 mg per pound of body weight.

Warning: People who have any type of liver disease, high levels of liver enzymes in their lab reports, gout, or peptic ulcers should not take niacin. When taking any type of vitamin B3 supplement discussed here, it is important to check liver function periodically. If you take more than 500 mg of niacin, or 3,000 mg or inositol hexaniacinate or niacinamide per day, your doctor should check your liver enzymes levels at least every three months.

As we've just learned, niacin is necessary to provide energy for the body and to ward off pellagra, and it's being used to treat ailments from diabetes to arthritis to migraines. However, too much vitamin B3 is not a good thing. Don't overdo it with your vitamin B3 intake, and this essential b-complex vitamin will help keep your body working properly.

Niacin is just one of the many vitamins your body needs to maintain overall health. Follow these links to learn more.
  • Vitamin B6 is actually three substances, pyridoxine, pyridoxamine, and pyridoxal, that work to metabolize protein and amino acids. Read more in How Vitamin B6 Works.
  • In How Biotin Works, learn how biotin acts as a coenzyme in several metabolic reactions, such as the metabolism of fats and carbohydrates.
  • Read How Folate Works to learn about folacin, folic acid, and folate and how a folate deficiency can cause megaloblastic anemia.
  • Vitamin B12, also called cyanocobalamin or cobalamin, is essential because it assists folate in making DNA and RNA. Read more in How Vitamin B12 Works.
  • Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is good for more than just easing the common cold. Learn more in How Vitamin C Works.

  • To learn about the many vitamins in our diet, how much you should be eating, and where to find them, go to our general Vitamins page.
  • To find the best prices on B vitamin supplements, click here.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Jennifer Brett, N.D. is director of the Acupuncture Institute for the University of Bridgeport, where she also serves on the faculty for the College of Naturopathic Medicine. A recognized leader in her field with an extensive background in treating a wide variety of disorders utilizing nutritional and botanical remedies, Dr. Brett has appeared on WABC TV (NYC) and on Good Morning America to discuss utilizing herbs for health.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.