Vitamin B3: Keeping Your Heart and Brain Healthy

How important is vitamin B3? It helps to protect both your cardiovascular and nervous systems. Thankfully, odds are good that you're already getting enough in your diet.

vitamin b3

Beets and sunflower seeds—shown here in a healthy salad—are loaded with vitamin B3.

© Charlotte Lake | Dreamstime

Vitamin B3—more formally known as niacin or nicotinic acid (not to be confused with nicotine!)—contributes to the function of every part of your body. It plays a key role in metabolism, is necessary for a healthy liver and nervous system, and is important in the production of sex and stress hormones in the body. And that’s not all.

Vitamin B3’s biggest impact is on our heart health. Niacin is beneficial for cardiovascular health by regulating your levels of LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and triglycerides.

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Vitamin B3 and Your Heart

LDL cholesterol is the “bad” variety that increases the risk of heart disease, whereas HDL cholesterol decreases the risk of heart disease. Vitamin B3 decreases the levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood and increases the amount of HDL cholesterol.

Plus, niacin is recommended by the National Cholesterol Education Program as valuable therapy for those trying to control their cholesterol levels to prevent heart attacks.

Triglycerides are necessary for a healthy body, but like so many other substances, too much can be problematic. In the case of vitamin B3, excess triglycerides are converted to fat for storage, increasing the risk of heart disease. Vitamin B3 helps to keep blood triglyceride levels low.

Vitamin B3 and the Brain

Vitamin B3 is one of several B vitamins that plays a role in brain health and memory retention. Studies have found that patients with dementia had lower levels of vitamin B3 than patients without it, and that confusion and dementia are two of the symptoms of vitamin B3 deficiency.

A 2004 study in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry found that those who consumed more vitamin B3—be it through diet or supplementation—were less likely to experience cognitive decline or to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

Why does niacin help to protect the brain? It plays a role in the growth and repair of both nerve cells and DNA. Since other B vitamins are also beneficial for mental health, a B multi-vitamin can be beneficial in compensating for deficiencies.

And that’s still not all. Vitamin B3 is also believed to help prevent cataracts and is beneficial for skin health.

The Best in Vitamin B3 Foods

Vitamin B3 is an essential nutrient, meaning that your body can’t make it on its own and you need to get it from your diet. Vitamin B3 is also water-soluble and gets excreted in your urine, so it is necessary to consume it on a daily basis.

The Recommended Daily Allowance for vitamin B3 is 14 mg for adult women and 16 mg for adult men. Children and women who are pregnant or nursing have varying requirements.

Some foods that are good sources of vitamin B3 are:

  • Beets
  • Beef liver
  • Fish
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Peanuts
  • Breads and cereals that have been fortified with vitamin B3
  • Chicken
  • Turkey

Niacin is also available as a supplement.

Vitamin B3 Deficiency

The good news is that vitamin B3 deficiency is quite rare in developed countries like the United States. Those most at risk for vitamin B3 deficiency are alcoholics and people with very nutrient-poor diets.

Some medications, including chloramphenicol and azathioprine, may also cause low vitamin B3 levels in your body.

Symptoms of vitamin B3 deficiency include:

  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting
  • Canker sores
  • Poor circulation
  • Depression
  • Dementia
  • Cracked, scaly skin
  • Diarrhea
  • Swollen, painful tongue

Vitamin B3 Side Effects

On the other hand, hHgh doses of vitamin B3 can be toxic, so it’s important to consult with your doctor before taking B3 supplements. Possible side effects from taking too much niacin include:

  • Flushed skin
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Blurred vision
  • Liver damage
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Itching

If taking a niacin supplement, start with a low dose and gradually increase to the desired amount. Flushing is the most common side effect, and may persist or may go away within one to two weeks once your body adjusts.

Vitamin B3 also interacts with a variety of medications, including antibiotics, anticoagulants, anti-seizure medications, cholesterol-lowering medications, statins, and diabetes medications. Ask your doctor about potential medication interactions, and plan on regular bloodwork to monitor your liver function if you’re taking niacin long-term.

Other Forms of Vitamin B3

Niacinamide is a form of vitamin B3 that’s being touted as a natural remedy for anxiety. It is thought to work by regulating hormones and chemicals in the brain, such as serotonin and dopamine.

The most common side effect of taking niacinamide supplements is nausea; it also can cause, like its cousin niacin, flushing and liver damage.

For further reading, see these University Health News posts:

See also The University of Maryland page Vitamin B3 (Niacin).

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