Vitamin B3 (niacin) health benefits

B3 imageI recently found some health-related documentaries on Netflix that are pretty good. You may already know some of them, like “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead”, “Food, Inc”, and “Hungry for Change”, all of which are excellent.

Check them out if you haven’t already.

The one that really caught my attention though, is called “Food Matters”. It’s a little more laid-back in approach than the others, with mostly experts talking.

The theme of the film is how much your health could be improved by eating more healthy food, and not relying on the standard drugs and surgery approach to healthcare.

I was aware of several of the topics covered, such as mega-dose vitamin C to prevent and treat various illnesses and infections.

The thing that I hadn’t really heard about before was that Vitamin B3, also known as niacin, can be used to treat depression and lower your blood cholesterol.

They were talking about doses of these vitamins way in excess of the recommended daily allowance, and how medical practitioners advise against this. So what is vitamin B3 (aka niacin) and how can it help us?

You can check out the trailer for “Food Matters” below:

Vitamin B complex

I have to admit that my knowledge of B-vitamins is pretty sketchy. I think this might be because there is only really one type of each of the others (maybe vitamin D has a few variations too), and it wasn’t too difficult to understand the main functions.

When it comes to Vitamin B there are several different kinds, and I think that must have put me off learning about them. Vitamin B complex is a good name for it. How did I manage to avoid knowing about this with my Doctorate in Biochemistry?

I just read up quickly on the B vitamins and it turns out there are nine different kinds. Confusingly, the B vitamins go from B1 to B12, but there is no vitamin B4, B10 or B11.

It seems that vitamins B4, B10 and B11 used to be considered vitamins but they have now been relegated to become lesser chemicals for various reasons. A bit like Pluto, which used to be a planet but isn’t any more.

Vitamin B3, aka niacin

In the “Food Matters” movie they were very specific about vitamin B3, also known as niacin, and the health benefits it can bring. They suggested it had almost magical properties, which would make us feel better in a number of ways.

Who doesn’t want to feel better? I decided to go and buy some immediately.

I found some on the website of a well-known health store – but what’s that?

Once I had a large image of the bottle I could see that it said “Non-Flush” on the label. “Non-Flush”? This didn’t compute so I needed to find out more.

It seems that certain types of Niacin (vitamin B3) can cause skin flushing. This is reddening of your skin (if you have pale skin), or darkening if you have darker skin to start with. The flushing is caused by the blood vessels in your skin opening up to allow more blood to flow through them.

Some people want to avoid this so they buy the “Non-Flush” form of niacin. I have a go at explaining the difference between the types of niacin below.

Vitamin B3 deficiency

The functions of most vitamins were worked out by looking at what happens to people who have a deficiency of a particular vitamin.

Since B vitamins are involved in metabolism and energy production, it’s not surprising that a vitamin B3 deficiency can slow down your metabolism. Lack of vitamin B3 can cause irritability, anxiety, fatigue and lack of concentration, among other things.

Severe vitamin B3 deficiency causes a condition called “pellegra”, which I hadn’t heard of before. Pellegra seems to have several symptoms, but is often described in terms of the “Four Ds” – diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia, and death. So, not good then.

Vitamin B3 deficiency seems to be rare in developed countries, except for people who are severely malnourished and people with serious alcohol abuse problems.

Vitamin B3 health benefits

The main health benefit at normal levels present in a balanced diet would be avoiding the problems described above. At higher levels though, vitamin B3 is said to provide further benefits, including elevation of mood and lowering of blood cholesterol.

Not all types of vitamin B3 seem to provide the same benefits, so it’s worth looking into this further.

Vitamin B3 comes in different forms

Vitamin B3 exists in different forms. All types of vitamin B3 are known as niacin, but there are some slightly different chemical types, with different names. It’s important to be aware of this so you obtain the correct type for the health issue you want to address.

Vitamin B3 from the diet is turned into a chemical called NAD, which is important for energy production in your cells, and some other metabolic processes. This is what goes wrong when you have a vitamin B3 deficiency.

The niacin (Vitamin B3) you can buy to take as a supplement is usually available in one of two forms: nicotinic acid and nicotinamide. Your body can use both of them to make NAD, so as a vitamin B3 supplement they are both fine.

However, nicotinic acid will help to control your blood cholesterol, whereas nicotinamide won’t.

Niacin described as “Non-Flush” is nicotinamide, so it’s important to be aware that this won’t help you to control your blood cholesterol.

Nicotinic acid niacin helps control blood cholesterol

Fairly high doses of niacin (in its nicotinic acid form) have been found to increase the amount of HDL-cholesterol in your blood stream. HDL-cholesterol, as you may be aware, is also known as “good cholesterol”.

Niacin also lowers the levels of LDL-cholesterol, also know as “bad cholesterol”, together with levels of other fats in your bloodstream.

These changes in blood cholesterol levels can help to protect you from cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, and strokes. You can read more in my article on cholesterol metabolism.

High doses of niacin to lower blood cholesterol

The amounts of niacin (nicotinic acid) required for these changes in cholesterol metabolism are way above the recommended daily allowance, but doctors have been prescribing this for many years. Niacin was used as a blood cholesterol lowering drug long before statins were invented.

The dosage required to lower blood cholesterol around one gram per day, where the recommended daily allowance is around 15mg per day. That’s more than sixty times the normal amount, which shows that doctors will prescribe megadoses of vitamins where they are happy with the evidence that supports it.

It looks as if you have to be careful taking these high doses of niacin. The niacin tablets I have found for sale are of the extended release variety, so you only take one a day and the vitamin is released and absorbed slowly over time.

Taking this much in one go without the staggered release can cause nausea, vomiting and liver damage, in addition to the flushing described earlier.

Does vitamin B3 help with depression?

One other thing they mentioned in “Food Matters” was that vitamin B3 can help with depression and anxiety.

You can watch the relevant clip from the movie below. This is where they talk about using vitamin B3 as a treatment for depression, which is very interesting.

I’m still looking into the evidence for niacin helping with depression and I’ll write more when I’m clearer about this. In the meantime, if you have any thoughts on this please leave a comment below.

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