Of all the B vitamins, niacin may be the single most overlooked. In fact, I would be willing to bet that many of you reading had never heard of niacin before you saw it in the title of this post. That’s quite okay; it is an important but unpopular vitamin. Hopefully today I can shed some light on it, and why it’s vital to your health. Remember to never think of any single vitamin as an “answer” to all of your problems. Instead, think of niacin as one tool in your toolkit. Food is composed of many different compounds and can never be broken down very simply.
What Is It?
As I mentioned, niacin is a B vitamin which is contained in a variety of foods. It is sometimes called vitamin B3 or nicotinic acid. It is essential to human life and a deficiency can result in a wide variety of unpleasant side effects. Long term niacin deficiency results in a disease called “pellagra.” Niacin is involved in DNA repair as well, so a shortage of this vitamin is not something you want. Low dietary amounts of niacin have even been associated with various forms of cancer. It is a tragic link that can easily be corrected, especially when consuming a Paleo diet.
Niacin is a colorless derivative of pyridine. In the early 1900s, more than 100,000 people died due to a lack of niacin. Alcoholism and poverty are the most common problems associated with lack of niacin. Niacin acts via G protein coupled receptors, NIACR1 and NIACR2.
Deficiency of niacin, as noted, is very unpleasant. Glossitis of the tongue is possible. This as inflammation of the tongue, seen in a purplish shade of color. Depression has also been linked to niacin deficiency. Dermatitis and diarrhea, as well, have been linked to niacin deficiency. Usually all three are seen together in the previously-mentioned pellagra.
Why Do I Need It?
Well, perhaps one of the most important reasons that we all need niacin is that all of the B vitamins help to turn our food into energy. Niacin, in particular, helps to raise “good” cholesterol, and lowers “bad” cholesterol. Niacin can also help to balance sex hormones. Obviously we can all see why that would be a good thing! Niacin can also help with brain health and memory. Repairing DNA also means that niacin can help, somewhat indirectly, with the aging process. We can all agree that looking as young as possible is something we all seek! Getting plenty of niacin, as well as the other B vitamins, is definitely one helpful way to help potentially slow aging as well as feel more energetic! And you are only as old as you feel, right?
Of niacin’s many benefits, perhaps the most important is its cholesterol-lowering usage. This was known as early as 1955, but only in recent times have we come to understand the cellular and molecular ways in which niacin is beneficial. Niacin reduces triglycerides and apolipoprotein-B containing lipoproteins. This can be thought of as VLDL and LDL. While lowering these, niacin raises HDL. Not too shabby, right?
Since niacin is water-soluble, your body cannot store it. Therefore, you need some niacin every day to avoid a deficiency. Interestingly, niacin has also been shown to help some people with diabetes, though the exact reason for this is somewhat undetermined. There are three different types of niacin: nicotinic acid (nicotinate), niacinamide, and inositol hexaniacinate. Inositol hexaniacinate cannot be used to satisfy your daily requirement for niacin. This is important to note if avoding this vitamin in food and looking to instead supplement with it.
Can I Get It From Food?
Niacin is found in a variety of foods. There are many Paleo friendly foods which contain this B vitamin, especially in great abundance. The top 4 foods, in fact, are all Paleo mainstays: tuna, chicken, pork and liver. Beef, mushrooms and avocado all contain niacin as well. In fact, it is a good idea to try and obtain all of your niacin via food. As you will see, it becomes harder to supplement with this vitamin than one would think.
Conversely, since nearly all of the foods listed which contain great amounts of niacin are meat or fish, sometimes vegetarians run an additional risk of becoming deficient of this B vitamin. This is one reason why I usually have my vegetarian clients take a B-complex vitamin. As you will see though, it is always better to obtain our vitamins from foods in the diet. Supplements only serve to complicate matters. It’s much easier to eat 3 meals per day than to have to take 15 supplements per day. That is why a Paleo diet can be so beneficial; you get most of the effects of supplementing heavily without any of the downsides or cost!
Many, especially in the bodybuilding community, will look to supplement with niacin. This can be beneficial but it must be done in the correct way. I would recommend working with a doctor if looking to supplement with niacin. If you are really looking to lower your cholesterol via this route, niacin is, in effect, a drug and not a vitamin. That’s why working with a doctor would be a good idea. There may be a multitude of side effects and they are not to be taken lightly.
Generally, supplementing with niacin tends to result in blood-vessel dilation. This may be familiar to some as itchiness, tingling and a flushing of color. This is usually seen in the chest, neck and face. Around 75mg of niacin can cause this reaction. Not to worry, it’s not generally dangerous at this level but it can be very unpleasant for a short time period. It is also important to note that if you have any type of liver disease, you should not take niacin. There are also a few other conditions where taking niacin may not be a good idea, so be sure to check with your doctor.
As mentioned, taking niacin can sometimes lead to a flushing of the neck, face and chest. This means that your blood vessels are dilated. It also means that the blood flow throughout the organs is increased. Some with arthritis note that their joints seem to feel better when experiencing a niacin flush, which is one more possible reason to supplement with the vitamin.
Many in the athletic or bodybuilding community note that they enjoy feeling some kind of increased blood flow when exercising. In theory, this could make for better performance. However, usually even the best results are marginal. However, if you play in a competitive league or sport, sometimes that last 5% can make a difference. Also, interestingly, niacin is NOT a vitamin in the truest sense because it can be derived from the amino acid tryptophan. The conversion is not very good but it is interesting to note.
Dangers Of Nutritionism
It must be noted that while niacin is clearly important, we must not eat foods solely for one value or vitamin. Eating a wide range of foods, with many different nutrients, chemicals, phytochemicals, and minerals is essential to good health. Just like you wouldn’t eat 20 handfuls of Brazil nuts every day for a mega-dose of selenium, you don’t want to eat huge doses of liver for niacin. Oftentimes in the health and fitness community, we get people who think if they just fix one thing then everything in their life will be perfect. This is expectation is unrealistic.
This is a friendly reminder to eat a well-balanced, colorful, and nutrient-dense diet! Oftentimes too much of something can be just as detrimental as too little of something. We must remember that there are also many elements of foods, like vegetables, which scientists don’t even yet understand. This is the counter-argument to taking lots of supplements.
I hope I have provided a plethora of information about niacin and why you need to have it in your life and diet. Remember that a deficiency is not something you want and that anyone and everyone can easily obtain enough of this B vitamin from their diet. Remember, since niacin is water-soluble, your body cannot store it. If looking to supplement with niacin, do so with a doctor’s advisement. Of niacin’s many benefits, perhaps the most important is its cholesterol-lowering usage, so supplementing with the vitamin for that purpose could be beneficial.
How did I do covering this overlooked vitamin? Did you learn anything about niacin? Let me know in the comments!