Niacin, also known as vitamin B3, is one of the eight essential B vitamins. Due to its antioxidant properties and role in energy production, niacin is required for healthy body function and offers a number of impressive health benefits.

Here, we’ll cover everything you need to know about niacin, including its potential health benefits, how much you need, and some of the top food sources.

What is niacin?

What is niacin

Niacin, or vitamin B3, is one of the eight essential B vitamins.

There are two main chemical forms of niacin: nicotinic acid and niacinamide (also called nicotinamide), both of which are available in food and supplement form.

Niacin plays a key role in the production of two coenzymes called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) and nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate (NADP). NAD and NADP are involved in over 400 biochemical reactions in the body – most of which involve transforming the food we eat into energy.

Niacin is also involved in cell signaling, has powerful antioxidant properties, and aids the creation and repair of DNA.

Because niacin is water-soluble, the body doesn’t store it, so we have to get it through our diet. The body can also make small amounts of niacin from tryptophan, which is an amino acid found in protein sources like turkey and other animal foods.

What are some potential health benefits of niacin?

What are some potential health benefits of niacin

From heart health to improved brain function and reduced joint pain, niacin offers a number of potential health benefits.

We’ll cover some of these below…

1. Niacin may help to reduce blood pressure

One of niacin’s roles is to release chemicals called prostaglandins in the body. Prostaglandins have been found to improve blood flow (and therefore blood pressure) by widening blood vessels.

For this reason, there’s research to suggest that niacin may have a place in the prevention and/or treatment of high blood pressure.

This study of over 12,000 adults found that there was a 2% decrease in the risk of high blood pressure for every 1mg increase of niacin taken daily. The lowest overall risk of high blood pressure was seen at a daily niacin intake of 14.3 to 16.7mg.

Another study also found that increased niacin intake led to a slight reduction in systolic blood pressure.

However, further research is needed to fully confirm these findings.

2. Niacin may boost brain function

Because niacin is involved in the production of energy-producing coenzymes NAD and NADP, our brains need it to function properly.

In fact, brain fog and an increased risk of mental health conditions like depression and anxiety are some of the most common symptoms associated with niacin deficiency.

Other research also suggests that niacin may help to protect against age-related cognitive decline and conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.

For example, this study linked a higher intake of niacin with a slower rate of cognitive decline; and another study suggested it may help to boost brain health in those with Alzheimer’s disease.

3. Niacin may help to manage and treat diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that causes the body to attack and destroy insulin-creating cells in the pancreas. There’s research to suggest that niacin may help to protect these cells and possibly even lower the risk of developing type 1 diabetes in the first place.

When it comes to type 2 diabetes, the potential benefits of niacin are slightly more complicated.

There’s evidence that niacin can help to lower the high cholesterol levels that are often seen in people with type 2 diabetes. But, it also has the potential to increase blood sugar levels, as shown by this study.

That being said, this scientific review found that niacin didn’t have significant negative effects on blood sugar management in people with type 2 diabetes. Nevertheless, those with the condition are advised to monitor their blood sugar carefully and speak to their doctor before taking niacin in supplement form.

4. Niacin may improve skin health

Whether taken orally or applied as a lotion, niacin has been found to help protect skin cells from sun damage.

Other studies also suggest it can improve acne and reduce redness and inflammation. As a result, there’s evidence that niacin may help in the management of other inflammatory skin conditions like bullous pemphigoid or granuloma annulare.

Some research suggests that niacin may even help to prevent certain types of skin cancer. For example, this study of over 300 people at high risk of developing skin cancer found that taking 500mg of nicotinamide twice a day reduced rates of nonmelanoma skin cancer compared to a control group.

5. Niacin may improve mental wellbeing

We know from science that dietary habits can have a significant impact on mental health. This includes the risk for developing mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.

Among the research, a possible link between niacin deficiency and increased risk of mental health conditions has been identified. As a result, it’s believed that upping niacin intake could be beneficial.

Science suggests that one potential reason for this is that niacin may have a similar impact on brain health as antidepressant drugs.

We know from research that it’s not uncommon for people with depression to have reduced cerebral blood flow (blood flow in the brain). Antidepressants often work by improving cerebral blood flow, and there’s evidence that niacin may have a similar impact on cerebral blood flow.

For this reason, some experts believe there may be use for niacin alongside prescription antidepressants.

6. Niacin may help manage migraines

Although it’s currently unclear exactly how or why, some research suggests that niacin may be beneficial for migraines and tension-type headaches.

For example, in this study, participants reported niacin to be effective at reducing migraine symptoms.

Some experts suggest that niacin may help to prevent migraine symptoms by widening intracranial vessels and improving blood flow.

7. Niacin may boost joint health and improve arthritis symptoms

Niacin in the form of niacinamide has been shown to increase joint mobility, and reduce joint pain, inflammation, and swelling.

Other research has found that niacin’s anti-inflammatory properties may help with managing joint pain and other arthritis symptoms.

In this study, patients with osteoarthritis who took niacin supplements were able to reduce the number of anti-inflammatory pain medications they used by 13%, compared to a placebo group. They also experienced improved joint flexibility.

Note: adding a niacin supplement to your diet for osteoarthritis relief should only be done under the supervision of your doctor. This is because niacin can make it more difficult for the body to clear uric acid, which could increase your risk of gout.

8. Niacin may improve cholesterol levels

Research has found that niacin may help to improve blood fat levels by reducing LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and increasing HDL (good) cholesterol.

For this reason, niacin is sometimes prescribed alongside cholesterol-lowering medications like statins to help regulate blood lipid levels. It’s possible that these effects may lead to a decreased risk of heart disease.

For example, this study found that niacin increased HDL cholesterol from 15% to 35% and decreased levels of LDL cholesterol from 25% to 5%.

Alongside this, evidence suggests that niacin is beneficial for people with an increased risk of heart disease and heart attacks because it not only lowers LDL cholesterol, but triglycerides too. For example, this study found that niacin can decrease triglyceride levels from 50% to 20%.

That being said, experts believe that high doses of niacin would be required to see significant improvements in blood fat levels, which could also increase the risk of experiencing unpleasant or potentially harmful side effects. For this reason, niacin isn’t currently used as a primary treatment for high cholesterol.

9. Niacin may boost gut health

Niacin is important for a number of digestive functions – including the breakdown of carbohydrates and fats.

For this reason, having low levels of vitamin B3 in your diet can upset the digestive system. For example, initial research has linked low levels of vitamin B3 with digestive conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). However, further research is needed to understand why.

How much niacin do I need and what are the best food sources?

How much niacin do I need and what are the best food sources

According to the NHS, the recommended daily amount of niacin is 16.5mg for men and 13.2mg for women.

Because the body can’t store niacin, we need to get it from our diet. Niacin is found in a variety of foods – but meat, poultry, fish, legumes, and nuts are some of the best sources.

Some foods are also fortified with niacin and other vitamins, such as breakfast cereals.

Below are some of the most common sources of niacin…

  • Nutritional yeast (46mg per 15g)
  • Grilled chicken breast (9mg per 85g)
  • Roasted turkey breast (10mg per 85g)
  • Canned tuna (8.5mg per 85g)
  • Salmon (8.5mg per 85g)
  • Beef (4.5mg per 85g)
  • Dry roasted peanuts (4mg per 28g)
  • Lentils (2mg per 200g)

The majority of people are able to get enough niacin by eating a healthy, balanced diet. If you’d like to increase your intake, check out this list of 16 foods that are high in niacin from Healthline, or why not give one of these high niacin recipes from Eat This Much a go?

However, if you’re concerned about your niacin intake, it’s important to speak to your doctor before adding any supplements to your diet.

What are the signs of niacin deficiency and toxicity and who’s at risk?

Niacin deficiency is very rare in the UK. However, poor diet habits and certain health conditions can increase your risk. There are two types of niacin deficiency: primary and secondary.

  • Primary deficiency is caused by not having enough vitamin B3 in your diet.
  • Secondary deficiency occurs alongside another health condition – such as alcoholism, Crohn’s disease, and chronic diarrhea – that interferes with the body’s ability to absorb nutrients.

Mild niacin deficiency can cause symptoms such as indigestion, poor circulation, fatigue, and depression. It can normally be corrected with diet changes and/or a multivitamin.

Severe niacin deficiency is known as pellagra – a disease that affects the skin, nervous system, and digestive system. Symptoms can include mental confusion, scaly or cracked skin, diarrhea, vomiting, headaches, and depression.

While research has found no danger in consuming high amounts of niacin found naturally in food, taking too much niacin in supplement form can lead to various side effects including nausea, vomiting, and liver toxicity. For this reason, it’s important to always consult your doctor before adding any supplements to your diet.

Final thoughts…

Niacin is one of eight B vitamins that play an important role in health and optimal body function.

Research shows that having sufficient amounts of B3 in the body can offer a number of health benefits – including boosted heart and gut health, and a decreased risk of age-related cognitive decline.

For more diet and nutrition tips, head over to the diet and nutrition section of our website. Here you’ll find more essential vitamin and mineral guides and healthy diet swap ideas.