What Is Niacin, Vitamin B3?
In the early 1900s the American South was afflicted by a terrible epidemic. Millions of people began suffering from “the five Ds”: dermatitis, diarrhea, depression and eventually dementia and death. It would take nearly 40 years and cost 100,000 lives before doctors determined this awful disease, known as pellagra, was the result of a simple nutritional deficiency: a lack of niacin, an organic compound also known as vitamin B3 or nicotinic acid.
Many foods contain Vitamin B3, but it is more bio-available, or capable of being readily absorbed, in some foods than others. At the time of the awful pellagra wave in America corn was a dietary staple. It was easy to grow, had a high caloric content, and could be dried and stored for long term use. Corn, more precisely known as maize, was first domesticated nearly 10,000 years ago in Mexico from a wild grass called teosinte.
Corn contains niacin, but it is connected to peptides and complex carbohydrates that need to be broken down by a chemical process before it can be absorbed by mammals. To release the niacin, indigenous populations of Mesoamerica soaked corn in a highly alkaline solution consisting of water and calcium hydroxide, known as cal, or ashes from hardwoods. The Aztecs, in their native language Nahuatl, called this process Nixtamalization. The soaked corn was made into masa, or dough, for tortillas or eaten as whole kernels in hominy. By the time corn was a staple crop for Americans of European and African descent, Nixtamalization had been abandoned.
Between corn grits for breakfast, corn on the cob and cornbread with other meals, and even corn whiskey, the diet in the South was nearly entirely devoid of bio-available sources of vitamin B3. And as food production became more mechanized, nutrient absorption actually became worse.
Wheat contains healthy levels of niacin, but most of it is available in the bran or germ which is present when the grain is ground coarsely. For centuries, stone ground wheat which produced coarser flour was the standard. As technological improvements allowed for smoother grinding mills, flour became finer in consistency and much of the niacin was removed.
It is estimated that by the 1930s almost half of the adult population suffered from malnutrition, specifically B vitamin deficiencies. As the Pellagra epidemic began to subside and the importance of niacin became widely understood, it began to be added to commercially produced breads and cereals. Was this vital nutrient supplemented in our food supply to save the lives of millions of malnourished Americans for the good of humanity? Well, yes and no. In 1941 president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and military officials convened the National Nutrition Council for Defense. The council decided that to prepare for war, young men, especially poor young men, needed to be healthy to fight and, ironically, to die in many cases. It was recommended that flour and bread be enriched with niacin and other B vitamins as well as iron. By the 1950s, more than half of the states required the enrichment of bread and flour.
A chemical compound of carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen dioxide, niacin is one of the essential human nutrients. Like other B vitamins such as riboflavin and thiamine, niacin helps the body convert carbohydrates into glucose, providing an essential function in the conversion of food to energy. Niacin has specific properties that assist the adrenal gland’s production of hormones including adrenaline, aldosterone, and cortisol. These hormones regulate stress response, affect metabolism, and assist with kidney function as well a serving roles in other key biochemical processes.
Vitamin B3 (Niacin) Deficiencies
When people suffer from a vitamin B3 deficiency, these hormonal functions become comprised resulting in a host of symptoms.
- poor digestion
- canker sores
- skin lesions
These can all be caused or exacerbated by low levels of vitamin B3.
Even slightly decreased niacin levels can cause irritability, problems with sleep, and slowed metabolism that can manifest as feeling full, sluggish and bloated. Excessive alcohol consumption, chemotherapy and certain medications, including birth control pills, can make B3 absorption more difficult as can auto-immune digestive disorders including gluten intolerance, celiac disease, and Crohn’s disease.
How Much Vitamin B3 Do you Need Daily
Niacin, like all the B vitamins, is water-soluble, so it does not stay in the body for very long. As a result, a steady intake of niacin is important. The U.S Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board’s Recommend Dietary Allowance of niacin is:
- 14 milligrams (mg) for women
- 16 mg for men.
- Pregnant women need an average intake of 18 mg while breastfeeding mothers need 17 mg.
- Infants up to 3 years of age need between 2 and 6 mg per day which is easily acquired if they are breastfed.
- Children 4 to 8 years need 8 mg
- Children between ages 9 and 13 require 14 mg.
Top 10 Foods for Niacin
Fortunately, there are a variety of foods rich in niacin to ensure we get our daily allowance. As a general rule, foods high in protein such as red meat, poultry, fish, and pork are good sources, but vegetables, legumes, and mushrooms provide niacin as well,as do whole grains. While there are some niacin superfoods like beef liver, which clocks in at 15 milligrams in a 3-ounce serving, your best bet is to look for foods that are readily available and easy to incorporate into most diets. With that in mind, the top ten foods that are tops in niacin are:
Just a third of a cup of peanut butter contains 16 mg of niacin. Spread that on some enriched bread or, better yet, home-baked bread made from stone-ground flour, and you are set for the day. If you are avoiding gluten, brown rice flour is a great choice with 10 mg of niacin per serving.
Healthy chickens eat fresh green grass, bugs, worms and other great sources of B vitamins and omega fatty acids. When we eat healthy, farm-raised chickens, especially in soups, we get 6.5 mg of B3 per 3-ounce portion. Since chicken is readily available, it is a great go-to meat for B vitamins. And don’t leave out the innards – fried chicken livers have 10.5 mg of B3 per 130 grams.
Whether in a sandwich, salad, or sushi, tuna is B3 hero. With 11.3 mg in a 3 ounce serving of yellowfin or a small can of albacore, tuna is packed with niacin. As an added bonus, wasabi and tamari soy sauce both contain niacin as well, so sushi with tuna is rolling in the B3.
Also known as broad beans, field beans, and even pigeon beans, these cousins of the green pea are grown worldwide. The plant is incredibly hardy, thriving in poor soil where it produces nitrogen and fertilizes follow on crops. A 3 ounce serving of favas contains 3 mgs of Niacin.
Rich in all the B vitamins, a 3-ounce portion of salmon can range from 4 mg to 20 mg of niacin. Why the wide range? Not all salmon are created equal. Farmed salmon raised in commercial tanks are prone to disease and often given antibiotics resulting in lower levels of niacin. Wild salmon, especially from Alaskan waters, are unconfined and eat a wild marine diet which increases their levels of B3.
These amazing fruits of the earth are full of valuable nutrients including niacin. Commercial button, cremini or Portobello mushrooms are readily available in your grocery store, and a 1 cup serving has about 3 mg of niacin. There are over 400 edible species of mushrooms, must of which are far more delicious and just as, or even more, niacin-rich than the common commercial ones. Seek out Chanterelles, Boletes, or Morels at farmers’ markets or specialty shops for a special treat.
Grass-fed red meat
Lean, grass-fed beef is a good source of niacin, iron, and other nutrients and is increasingly available from grocers and butchers. A roast can have 5 mg per serving with a steak containing up to 11 mg. And don’t forget the liver with 15 mg or more! But beef isn’t the most eaten red meat in the world – that distinction belongs to goat meat. Lower in cholesterol and saturated fats than beef, a 3-ounce portion of lean goat meat has about 7 mg of niacin.
From the dugout to the lunchroom, sunflower seeds are favorites of baseball players and schoolkids alike. Just a cup of seeds contains nearly 10 mg of niacin. For a light snack, sunflower seeds are heavy hitters in the B3 league.
Split green peas
High in protein, low in fat, with nearly the most dietary fiber of any food, the humble split pea is quite princely indeed. The green peas in particular, are high in niacin with 5.7 mg per cup. And if your grandmother’s split pea soup recipe calls for bacon, all the better – at 11 mg per 100 gram serving a little bacon now and then is a niacin booster. Avoid bacon with nitrites and go with turkey bacon if you want to cut down on the cholesterol.
Remember when we said we wouldn’t recommend less readily- available or unfamiliar superfoods like beef liver? Well, you may have noticed we already broke that rule a few paragraphs ago. So let’s go ahead and end this list with the superstar of niacin that might be a little of the beaten kitchen path – nutritional yeast. This deactivated strain of yeast is not the same as active yeast for baking, and it is not associated with fungal infections like the Candida genus of yeast. Instead, nutritional yeast’s nutty-flavored, bright yellow flakes are a delicious topping for popcorn and mashed potatoes and are used in sauces and cheese substitutes. A tablespoon of nutritional yeast contains – are you ready for this? – 56 mg of niacin in addition to other B vitamins! Nutritional yeast, or its cousin brewer’s yeast, is the main ingredient in products like Vegemite and Marmite which are spread on toast by hundreds of millions of niacin-loving people worldwide.
Health Benefits of Vitamin B3 (Niacin)
Preventing pellagra would be enough to put niacin in the Nutrient Hall of Fame, but vitamin B3 has many other health benefits. Some can be gained by normal dietary intake, while others require using and increased dosage available in supplements.
It is well-accepted in the medical community that niacin can be even more effective than “statin” drugs, like the widely-used Lipitor, in raising high-density cholesterol (HDL) which is considered “the good cholesterol.” It also lowers low-density cholesterol (LDL) – “bad cholesterol” – but not as dramatically. Dosages of 1,000 to 2,000 mg of B3 are generally needed when treating high cholesterol.
Counter the Effects of Heart Disease
Studies have shown that by decreasing blood levels of cholesterol the risks of clogged or hardened arteries can be reduced. By dilating blood vessels, niacin helps deliver more oxygen and nutrients throughout the body.
Slow or Prevent the Onset of Alzheimer’s Disease
As indicated by pellagra, dementia can be the result of vitamin B3 deficiencies. Although research is still emerging, early indications suggest that increasing the intake of niacin might slow the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.
Preliminary research indicates a moderate dosage of niacin can alleviate the symptoms of headaches, possibly due to dilation of blood vessels facilitating delivery of oxygen to the brain.
Treat Macular Eye Disease
Evidence suggests that niacin can treat or even reverse the effects of age-related macular degeneration and disease, potentially preventing vision loss. Additional studies are underway to support these findings.
Prevent Erectile Dysfunction
Viagra may have a natural competitor. Research suggests that B3 may reduce the occurrence of erectile dysfunction in men.
Niacinamide, the amide form of nicotinic acid, has been found in preliminary research to relieve symptoms of arthritis.
There are claims that niacin can be used to treat many other health conditions, but there is a lack of supporting research and many of the early indications are contradictory. For instance, it has been suggested it can treat diabetes, but it can also increase blood sugar levels. It is also suggested that niacin decreases hepatitis C blood levels, but it has also been indicated in liver damage.
Side Effects of Too Much Niacin
Part of the reason for using caution when recommending niacin for medical treatment is that consuming too much B3 can have adverse side effects. Among these are
- muscle pains
- digestive distress such as nausea, diarrhea, and belching
Flushing is one of the most common symptoms of excessive niacin intake. Indicated by redness in the face and rapid hot flashes, flushing is uncomfortable but subsides in a few hours and reduces in frequency as the body adjusts to higher levels of niacin. There are niacin preparations that claim to reduce the effects of flushing either with a sustained-release mechanism or the addition of inositol nicotinate. Unfortunately, sustained-release can have adverse effects on the liver and inositol nicotinate actually hinders the delivery of niacin, providing a weaker, less effective dose.
How to Get More Vitamin B3 Naturally and Easily
To increase your vitamin B3 levels, start with a diet that includes the niacin-rich foods. In particular, consider adding nutritional yeast to your table next to the salt and pepper as a seasoning for a variety of foods. This will ensure you are getting a niacin-boost with every meal. Antibiotics and other medications, especially steroids, impair the body’s ability to absorb niacin, so part of improving B3 intake is maintaining your overall health to avoid the need for these medications. Alcohol, coffee, and sugar also inhibit niacin absorption, so keeping these out of your diet, or at least used only in moderation, is important. Many energy drinks boast that they include B3 and other vitamins, but they are mixed with high levels of caffeine and sugar which negate any benefit the B3 might provide. These high levels of sugar and caffeine can also cause anxiety, stress, and insomnia, depleting your adrenal system and creating an even greater need for niacin. Of course, you can also take a B3 supplement, but a high-quality multivitamin daily should provide plenty of niacin.