Niacin and Niacinamide (also called nicotinamide) are both forms of vitamin B3, a water-soluble vitamin.
How was Niacin discovered?
Early in the twentieth century, a disease epidemic happened in the United States that took tens of thousands of lives. People lost their hair, became extremely sensitive to the sun, had persistent diarrhea, became weak and aggressive and finally, developed dementia or mental confusion before they died. No one knew what was responsible.
Eventually, corn was found to be at the center of this unknown illness which France, Italy, and Egypt all suffered massive epidemics of. They named it pellagra from the Italian words pelle agra, meaning “rough skin” in reference to the skin sores and rashes.
In 1923 the mystery was finally solved by Joseph Goldberger: Pellagra was a nutritional disease that could be corrected with dried brewer’s yeast. milk, meat or eggs.
To cut a long story short, poor people who had corn as a staple in their diet also lacked animal products, which are readily available sources of the amino acid tryptophan. Note that all amino acids come from protein foods. Because the body can make niacin out of tryptophan, if necessary, people who eat corn with eggs, cheese, chicken, beef or beans, would have avoided pellagra.
What it does:
Niacin is a key player in turning carbohydrates, proteins, and fats into fuel or energy. It promotes cellular health, along with Riboflavin, and protects our DNA from damage. Niacin, both orally and topically, offers some protection against skin cancer.
Before statin drugs, niacin was the drug of choice for treating cholesterol problems. Never use niacin instead of statin, because it doesn’t save lives, whereas statins do; without talking to your doctor. Although niacinamide (nicotinamide) does not lower cholesterol like niacin does, studies show that it reduces the pain and increases the flexibility of arthritic joints.
Deficiency Symptoms and Conditions:
Apart from Pellagra, another common condition is Dementia, so there is interest in looking at the role it plays in Alzheimer’s disease.
Early stages of deficiency include heartburn, abdominal bloating, mouth sores, and constipation.
With a prolonged deficiency, the mouth, throat, and esophagus become red and swollen, and a rash develops on skin exposed to sunlight. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, depression, disorientation, and cognitive decline can all occur leading to pellagra.
Niacin is naturally found in meat, poultry, brewer’s yeast, beef liver, salmon, tuna, sunflower seeds, beans, and peanuts. Bread and cereals are usually fortified with niacin.
The body can also make niacin from tryptophan which is readily found in animal products and beans.
Thanks to food fortification programs deficiency are not so common in Western countries. But mild niacin deficiency may be more prevalent than we think. For example, in alcoholics, those with absorption problems, the homeless or malnourished, and people with cancer.
Hartnup’s disease causes poor absorption of tryptophan, which puts people at risk of niacin deficiency. People with Carcinoid Syndrome use up all their tryptophan making serotonin and could also become niacin deficient.
A multivitamin that provides 20 to 30 mg of niacin is sufficient for most people.
Prolonged use of high-dose niacin may cause glucose intolerance, liver damage, and gastrointestinal distress. If you are taking more than 500 mg of niacin in a dietary supplement, please make sure that your doctor is aware of this and is periodically checking your liver enzymes.
Instead of taking nicotinic acid, you may want to use niacinamide, the form of niacin found in many dietary supplements and fortified foods. Also, Niacinamide does not cause flushing and is much safer in larger doses than niacin or nicotinic acid. But niacinamide is no good for treating cholesterol problems.
Diabetics should note that taking niacin in high doses can also raise blood sugar levels.
People with Pellagra, Dementia, Absorption issues, should all consider niacin (vitamin B3) as well as those with a high risk of skin cancer like pilots, truck drivers, road workers, high crane drivers, and organ recipients (like myself).