Vital Information on Vitamin B3

Most of us aren't familiar with vitamin B3. Anyone who's seen cereal commercials on American TV, however, has heard of niacin. Vitamin B3 and niacin refer to the same water-soluble nutrient, a mixture of nicotinic acid and nicotinamide.

The human body uses these substances to form coenzymes whose names you don't really need to remember, nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) and nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate (NADP). Although the names are similar to nicotine, none of these substances is found in tobacco.

It's really rare to be deficient in vitamin B3, but when deficiency occurs, the symptoms are serious.

The late stage of B3 deficiency is known as pellagra. This vitamin-deficiency condition began to be noticed in the eighteenth century, when European settlers and farmers in Southern Europe began replacing traditional crops with the corn recently brought back from Mexico.

The most common symptoms of pellagra were called the 4 D's: dermatitis, diarrhea, dementia, and death. In the skin, a thick, dark, scaly rash appears on areas exposed to sunlight. (The word "pellagra" comes from an Italian phrase for rough skin.) Then there would be a bright red tongue, vomiting, and diarrhea. Headache, listlessness, fatigue, depression, disorientation, and memory loss came next, and, in the age when there were no vitamin treatments, pellagra was ultimately fatal.

Interestingly, pellagra was unknown in Mexico, where corn was (and is) a staple food. Corn actually contains a great deal of vitamin B3, but it is bound in a form that is not released by human digestion. The traditional method of preparing corn masa by soaking the corn in a lime (calcium oxide) solution prior to grinding and cooking releases the B3. The process of releasing B3 isn't complete until the corn meal is cooked.

When American settlers adopted a similar method for making hominy and hominy grits, pellagra began to disappear in the United States. In Europe, where corn is still eaten as polenta, without the soaking step, cases of pellagra were seen as recently as 1994.

Vitamin B3 deficiency in the developed world today is usually the complication of treatment with Isoniazid, a drug that deprives the TB bacillus (and human tissues) of vitamins essential to growth. Vitamin B3 deficiency can also occur when there are relatively rare tumors that secrete catecholamines, the precursors of stress hormones. There may be B3 deficiency during treatment with interferon and in persons with HIV.

The real importance of vitamin B3 in the modern diet is in preventing:

  • Cancer
  • Insulin-dependent diabetes, and
  • High cholesterol and heart disease.

Vitamin B3 reduces the risk of cancer by assisting DNA repair. B3 also is important in the activation of gene p53, a genetic "watchdog" that turns off the reproductive machinery in cancerous cells in the breast, lungs, and skin.

There's no evidence that getting more B3 can cure cancer, but there is statistically solid evidence that getting more vitamin B3 may prevent it.

Recently, a large-scale study in Switzerland and northern Italy found that taking B3 along with antioxidants might prevent cancers of the mouth, throat, and esophagus. The study associated taking 6.2 mg of vitamin B3 a day with a 40% reduction in risk of cancers of the mouth and throat, and taking 5.2 mg of B3 with a similar reduction in risk of cancer of the esophagus.

Insulin-dependent diabetes results from the destruction of insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. This form of diabetes typically strikes children, but it is not unknown to occur as late in life as age 50.

The results of treating insulin-dependent diabetes with B3 are promising, but not conclusive. In one study, taking vitamin B3 seemed to prevent development of the disease in relatives of persons who had it.

Once diabetes has occurred, taking vitamin B3 helps beta cells regenerate, but it doesn't lower blood sugars. That's because it has the added effect of increasing insulin resistance. Taking B3 for a time and then going on "vacation" from the supplement, however, has the potential of relieving the severity of insulin-dependent diabetes. More research is needed.

The best-known application of vitamin B3 is in treating high cholesterol that does not respond to conventional medication.

Doctors have known since 1955 that cholesterol can be lowered with high doses of nicotinic acid, although not with nicotinamide. (These are the two chemical forms of vitamin B3.)

The Coronary Drug Project followed 8,000 men who had had a heart attack for six years. In the subset of participants that took 3,000 mg of nicotinic every day for those six years, there was an average reduction of total blood cholesterol of 10%, reduction of triglycerides of 26%, reduction of the rate of second heart attack of 27%, and reduction of stroke and "mini-strokes" (transient ischemic attacks) of 26%.

Many men in the study succumbed to other causes of death, but when survivors were reexamined 15 years after the beginning of the study, the men who had taken the nicotinamide form of B3 every day were 10% more likely to still be alive. Later studies found that the beneficial effect of this form of B3 was to shift the production of "bad" (LDL) to "good" cholesterol.

You shouldn't take high-dose nicotinamide on your own. At the high doses need to help lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease, side effects are possible. There can be facial flushing immediately after you take the vitamin B. You can get a bright red nose, although the effect typically goes away after a few hours.

Taking as little as 500 mg of nicotinamide for two months can be too much if you have liver disease, and, as mentioned earlier, nicotinamide can interfere with the action of insulin in diabetics. You also should not take vitamin B3 in combination with any of the statin drugs for lowering cholesterol (Zocor, Mevacor, Lipitor, Crestor, etc.) unless your doctor knows.

The complications of taking B3 with these drugs can be avoided if you take other antioxidants, especially beta-carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E, but you should not take B3 and a statin unless you are following a comprehensive program of nutritional supplementation.

Can you get enough vitamin B3 from food?

Generally speaking, you can prevent deficiency but you can't treat disease with the levels of vitamin B3 found in everyday foods.

Food Serving Niacin (mg)
Beef (lean) 3 ounces (cooked) 3.1
Bread (whole wheat) 1 slice 1.1
Cereal (fortified) 1 cup 20-27
Cereal (natural) 1 cup 5-7
Chicken (light meat) 3 ounces (cooked without skin) 10.6
Coffee (brewed) 1 cup 0.5
Lentils 1 cup (cooked) 2.1
Lima beans 1 cup (cooked) 1.8
Pasta (enriched) 1 cup (cooked) 2.3
Peanuts 1 ounce (dry roasted) 3.8
Salmon 3 ounces (cooked) 8.5
Tuna (light, packed in water) 3 ounces 11.3
Turkey (light meat) 3 ounces (cooked without skin) 5.8

Good health requires dietary intake of niacin of about 30 mg/day for young adult men and 20 mg/day for young adult women. Most adults, especially adults over age 60, get about 70% of the niacin they need, despite the addition of niacin to breads and breakfast cereals.

All adults can get all the vitamin B3 they need from a daily multivitamin/mineral supplement, containing 100 % of the Daily Value (DV) for niacin, yielding at least 20 mg of niacin daily. One company that produces a balanced nutritional supplement with B3 is Xtend-Life Natural Products. Their flagship product, Total Balance, is a balanced nutritional supplement containing B3 and more! It contains all the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients you need in a single, easy-to-take blend.

We take it ourselves, and are very happy with the results.

A lot more vitamin inofrmation besides vital information on vitamin B3 at the home page.

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