We’ve all heard of calcium and vitamin C, but we are likely less familiar with the vitamin niacin. A member of the B vitamin group, niacin is a nutrient that shouldn’t be ignored. Also known as vitamin B3, niacin is an important nutrient for good health, considering that it’s needed for your entire body to function. Niacin isn’t as well-known as some of its B vitamin counterparts, however. So, you might be wondering what exactly it does and how you can make sure that you’re getting enough in your diet. Thankfully, we’ve consulted with some dietitians to give you the scoop on everything you need to know about niacin.
What is niacin?
Almost all of the body’s cellular processes require the B vitamin known as niacin. In particular, it plays a role in metabolism and converting food into energy for the body to use. “B vitamins are all water soluble, meaning [that] they are not stored in the body, and we need to eat sources of them daily,” says Registered Dietitian Amanda Montalvo. Your body gets niacin through food, but it also makes it from the amino acid tryptophan. It’s a nutrient you can find in common foods, such as meat, poultry, fish, some vegetables, and seeds. In some cases, people may also use it as a supplement to help treat certain medical conditions, such as high cholesterol.
What are the health benefits?
“Niacin is an important nutrient for heart health, metabolism, energy, skin health, and brain function,” says Montalvo. It helps make and repair DNA and acts as an antioxidant. There are also a number of health conditions that this B vitamin can help alleviate. “It’s beneficial for those with heart conditions,” says Montalvo. People have used it since the 1950s as a treatment for high cholesterol. It helps to lower “bad” LDL cholesterol and triglycerides while raising good “HDL” cholesterol. Niacin has also been shown to help with the treatment of diabetes. This is because of how it impacts blood sugar levels and improves oral diabetes medication outcomes, says Montalvo.
Which foods contain niacin?
There are plenty of everyday foods that contain the vitamin. “Overall, if you eat quality animal proteins and a variety of vegetables, you are likely getting enough niacin,” says Montalvo. The highest sources of niacin include foods like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and peanut butter. Plant foods, such as mushrooms, sweet potatoes, peas, sunflower seeds, and avocado contain the nutrient, as well. “It’s also fortified/enriched in many foods like cereals, pasta, and grain-based products,” says Amidor.
Should you use niacin supplements?
You may be stressing about whether or not you’re getting enough niacin in your diet. But thankfully, there’s not much to worry about. “Niacin deficiency is so rare that there is no need to supplement it,” says Registered Dietitian Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN. “In addition, [you can find] niacin in a variety of foods that people eat regularly.”
You should only take niacin supplements under a doctor’s supervision. Toxicity can result in symptoms like flushing, tingling, itching, rashes, hives, diarrhea, and abdominal discomfort, says Amidor.
Who is niacin most important for?
Everyone needs to make sure that they’re getting enough niacin in their diet. But, since a deficiency is rare, most people don’t need to worry about increasing their intake. However, there are some cases where an uptake of niacin could be beneficial. “If you have any skin issues (such as rashes), diarrhea, or dementia, then you can benefit from supplementing with niacin,” says Montalvo.
If you are someone with high cholesterol and heart disease risk factors, but can’t take statins, a supplement may be beneficial, as well. “It is used as a supplement prescribed [by] a doctor for some folks with high cholesterol,” says Amidor. “However, in order to work, the doctor prescribes pretty high doses. [This] has potential risks, such as liver damage, gastrointestinal issues, and glucose intolerance.”
Although more research is needed, there is also evidence that niacin can help ease some of the symptoms of osteoarthritis. It may be able to help reduce inflammation, improve joint mobility, and reduce the need for NSAIDs.
When in doubt, consult with your doctor, who can help ensure that a niacin supplement is right for you. Otherwise, maintain a balanced diet, and you should have no issue getting enough of this important B vitamin.