by Rachael Link, MS, RD
Niacin is one of the few micronutrients that is frequently prescribed by doctors as an alternative to drugs and traditional medications. In fact, niacin is commonly used to treat high cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease, but emerging research has also linked it to better brain function, decreased joint pain and protection against type 1 diabetes as well. And best of all, with the extensive list of niacin foods available throughout the food supply, it’s easier than ever to get in your fix.
So what does niacin do, and how can you be sure you’re getting the amount you need in your daily diet? Here’s what you need to know about this essential vitamin.
What Is Niacin? Role of Vitamin B3 in the Body
Niacin is a water-soluble vitamin that plays an important role in health. Vitamin B3, another name for niacin, is one of eight B vitamins needed by the body and for almost all cellular processes, including the conversion of food into energy. It also helps improve the function of the skin, digestive tract and nervous system and is essential for maintaining heart health and preserving cognition.
Niacin is found in two main forms, including nicotinic acid and niacinamide. Both are found in niacin foods and supplement sources and can be used to treat a wide array of health conditions. Impressively enough, niacin has been linked to benefits ranging from lower cholesterol levels to better brain function and beyond.
A deficiency in this key water-soluble vitamin can have serious health consequences and can result in a condition known as pellagra, which causes symptoms like diarrhea, dermatitis and dementia. Left untreated, pellagra can be life-threatening and even fatal in some cases.
It’s recommended that men and women get at least 16 and 14 milligrams of niacin per day, respectively, and filling up on foods with niacin is one of the best and more effective ways to get in your dose of this incredibly important micronutrient. (1) Meat, fish and poultry are some of the richest sources of niacin, and many animal products can come close to meeting your daily needs in a single serving. However, plenty of vitamin B3 foods are vegetarian as well, including sunflower seeds, peanuts, green peas and brown rice.
Top 15 Niacin Foods
Looking to add more niacin foods in your diet to help meet your daily needs? Niacin is primarily found in whole food sources, which makes it easy to pack in what you need by following a well-rounded diet. Here are 15 of the top foods high in niacin to add to your diet: (2)
- Chicken — 1 cup: 19.2 milligrams (96 percent DV)
- Liver — 1 slice: 11.9 milligrams (60 percent DV)
- Tuna — 3 ounces: 11.3 milligrams (56 percent DV)
- Turkey — 1 cup: 9.6 milligrams (48 percent DV)
- Salmon — 3 ounces: 6.8 milligrams (34 percent DV)
- Sardines — 1 can: 4.8 milligrams (24 percent DV)
- Grass-Fed Beef — 3 ounces: 4.4 milligrams (22 percent DV)
- Sunflower Seeds —1 cup: 3.8 milligrams (19 percent DV)
- Peanuts — 1 ounce: 3.8 milligrams (19 percent DV)
- Green Peas — 1 cup: 3.2 milligrams (16 percent DV)
- Brown Rice — 1 cup, cooked: 3 milligrams (15 percent DV)
- Mushrooms — 1 cup: 2.5 milligrams (13 percent DV)
- Avocado — 1 cup, cubed: 2.6 milligrams (13 percent DV)
- Sweet Potatoes — 1 medium: 1.7 milligrams (8 percent DV)
- Asparagus — 1 cup: 1.3 milligrams (7 percent DV)
Benefits of Niacin Foods
- Promote Heart Health
- Help Treat Arthritis
- Boost Brain Function
- Keep Skin Healthy
- Protect Against Type 1 Diabetes
- May Prevent Erectile Dysfunction
1. Promote Heart Health
Heart disease is a major problem that affects millions every year, accounting for an estimated 31.5 percent of all deaths around the world annually. (3) Research shows that niacin benefits heart health and can help reduce certain risk factors of heart disease, such as increased levels of cholesterol and high triglycerides.
According to a review published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, niacin therapy has been shown to lower triglyceride levels by 20 percent to 50 percent, decrease bad LDL cholesterol by up to 25 percent and increase beneficial HDL cholesterol by 15 percent to 35 percent. (4) Eating plenty of niacin-fortified foods or supplements may also help reduce oxidative stress and relieve inflammation to decrease the risk of heart disease. (5, 6)
2. Help Treat Arthritis
Arthritis is a condition characterized by swelling, pain and stiffness in the joints caused by chronic inflammation. While traditional treatment can typically include a combination of medications, physical therapy and even surgery in severe cases, some studies have found that niacin may be an effective natural treatment to keep symptoms of arthritis at bay.
For instance, a study conducted by the Office of Alternative Medicine at the National Institute of Health reported that niacin supplementation decreased symptoms of osteoarthritis, improved joint flexibility, reduced inflammation and decreased the need for pain relievers. (7) Similarly, an animal study out of Russia showed that administering an injection of niacin into the tissue of mice decreased signs of inflammatory degeneration in the joints. (8)
3. Boost Brain Function
Niacin plays an important role in brain function and helps supply your brain with the energy that it needs to thrive. For this reason, it’s not too surprising that dementia is one of the hallmark signs of niacin deficiency along with other symptoms like mental disorders and brain fog. (9, 10)
Although it’s well-established that eating a diet with plenty of foods high in niacin can help optimize brain function, new research has also found that it could even be beneficial in the treatment of mental health conditions like schizophrenia. (11) While preliminary evidence is still limited to animal models, some studies have also shown that niacin prevents damage to brain cells and could help preserve cognitive function to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. (12)
4. Keep Skin Healthy
Dermatitis is a condition that causes skin to become itchy and inflamed, producing symptoms like rashes, dryness and peeling. There are many different potential causes of dermatitis, but it can often be a symptom of a niacin deficiency. For this reason, eating plenty of niacin foods is one of the most effective ways to treat dermatitis caused by a niacin deficiency.
Not only that, but studies show that niacin may also help protect the skin against sun damage and reduce the risk of skin cancer. (13) In fact, one study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that supplementing with niacin twice daily was effective at reducing the rates of non-melanoma skin cancer in high-risk patients. (14)
5. Protect Against Type 1 Diabetes
Unlike type 2 diabetes, type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition that is typically diagnosed in children and young adults. It occurs when the immune system attacks the cells that produce insulin, resulting in unstable blood sugar levels and diabetes symptoms like increased thirst, fatigue, excessive urination and unintentional weight loss.
One study out of Rome actually found that treatment with niacin was able to preserve the function of insulin-producing cells in children with type 1 diabetes to help minimize symptoms. (15) Plus, it can prevent abnormalities in lipid levels, a common side effect that is often observed in patients with diabetes. (16)
6. May Prevent Erectile Dysfunction
Because niacin acts as a vasodilator to help increase blood flow throughout the body, some research suggests that it may be useful for the treatment and prevention of erectile dysfunction, an issue that can be caused by an inability to pump blood throughout the body efficiently.
A 2011 study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine showed that taking 1,500 milligrams of niacin daily was able to improve erectile function in patients with alterations in cholesterol levels thanks to its lipid-lowering effects in the body. (17) Another study found that supplementing with a mix of niacin, L-carnitine and L-arginine improved symptoms in 40 percent of patients with erectile dysfunction. (18)
Niacin Foods in Ayurveda and TCM
Niacin foods are highly nutritious, making them a staple in many forms of traditional medicine for their health-promoting properties.
Meat, poultry and seafood, in particular, are often used for their healing abilities in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Beef, chicken and fish are all said to tonify the chi, which is the vital life force that is essential to maintaining both mental and physical health. Plus, eating beef is believed to strengthen the spleen and stomach, chicken is thought to promote kidney health, and fish is used to treat low energy and fatigue.
Ayurveda, on the other hand, typically promotes eating primarily plant foods rather than large amounts of meat. While animal products often supply the greatest amount of niacin, there are plenty of niacin-rich foods for vegetarians that can easily fit into an Ayurvedic diet. Mushrooms, for instance, are loaded with niacin and are believed to satisfy the stomach, alkalize the body and stimulate the immune system. Meanwhile, avocados are considered highly nutritious and grounding and are used to soften and refresh the skin.
Where to Find and How to Use Niacin Foods
With the wide array of niacin foods available, you can easily find a good variety at most grocery stores. Consuming a balanced diet full of whole foods is your best bet to increase your niacin intake and prevent a deficiency while minimizing the risk of side effects. Try incorporating a serving of protein foods into your meals or swapping in a side of foods high in B vitamins like sweet potatoes, asparagus, green peas or brown rice.
You can also combine several sources of niacin for a vitamin B-rich meal. Pair brown rice with veggies and tuna fish for a hearty grain salad, or combine sunflower seeds and peanuts with an array of other nuts and seeds to make a super nutritious homemade granola.
Because niacin has a short half-life, it’s important to consume niacin foods consistently in your diet to increase your intake and prevent a deficiency. Make sure you get a good amount in each day as part of a well-rounded, healthy diet to promote better health and keep niacin levels in check long term.
How to Get More Vitamin B3 in Your Diet + Niacin Food Recipes
Eating a diet rich in whole foods is the best way to increase your intake of niacin and meet your daily needs. Not only are these nutritious foods high in niacin, but they are also typically nutrient-dense foods that contain B6, B12, thiamine, and other important vitamins and minerals that your body needs as well. For best results, try including a source of niacin with each meal to maximize the health of your diet.
Need some ideas for how to get started? Here are a few recipes using foods with niacin that can help increase your intake of this essential water-soluble vitamin:
Niacin Supplements and Dosage
Most people can get enough niacin in their diets by consuming plenty of foods high in B vitamins. However, if you have a niacin deficiency or suffer from a specific condition that can be treated by high doses of niacin, supplementation may be a good option for you. For example, niacin supplements are often recommended for those with high levels of cholesterol who are unable to tolerate statins like Lipitor.
You can find niacin supplements at many pharmacies, health stores, grocery shops and online retailers in tablet, capsule and extract form. However, doses are generally much higher than the recommended daily value, often supplying 2,000 percent to 3,00 percent in a single serving, so it’s important to stick to the recommended dosage to minimize the risk of adverse effects on health.
Taking high doses of niacin can cause serious side effects, including niacin flush, which is characterized by reddening of the skin and feelings of burning, dizziness, tingling and pain. Excess consumption of niacin through supplements can also lead to symptoms like stomach irritation, nausea, high blood sugar, liver damage and an increased risk of gout. Therefore, it’s best to consult with your doctor before taking high doses of niacin to decrease the risk of negative side effects.
Niacin was originally discovered in 1873 by Hugo Weidel, an Austrian chemist who was studying nicotine at the time. A few years later, Polish biochemist Casamir Funk was able to extract niacin, although he mistakenly thought it was thiamine at the time. Funk is credited with forming the concept of vitamins and even coined the term “vitamines,” or “vital amines,” due to the amine group he observed in the chemical structure of niacin.
A few years later in 1937, Conrad Elvehjem isolated niacin from liver and found that it contained an active ingredient that helped cure pellagra, or niacin deficiency. It wasn’t until 1955, though, that scientists unearthed the cholesterol-lowering properties of niacin, earning it the title of the oldest lipid-lowering drug to be discovered.
Originally known as “nicotinic acid,” niacin was actually given a new common name in 1942 when food manufacturers began fortifying foods to prevent micronutrient deficiencies like pellagra. It was renamed to prevent consumer confusion and to dissociate it from nicotine, a harmful substance found in cigarettes.
Today, niacin is recognized as an incredibly important part of the diet, and many foods are now fortified with niacin and other essential nutrients to reduce the risk of deficiency. In supplement form, niacin has gained widespread popularity as a natural treatment for a number of health conditions, including high cholesterol, heart disease and arthritis.
Niacin is a water-soluble vitamin, meaning that excess amounts are excreted from your body through the urine to prevent a niacin overdose. For this reason, consuming plenty of foods high in B vitamins is unlikely to come with any side effects, and experiencing symptoms like niacin flush from food is highly unlikely.
However, consuming large amounts of niacin in supplement form can cause adverse side effects, including redness, stomach irritation, nausea, liver damage, high blood sugar and an increased risk of gout. It’s best to talk to your doctor before taking high doses of niacin and consider decreasing your dosage if you experience these or any other niacin side effects.
Final Thoughts on Niacin Foods
- Niacin is an important water-soluble vitamin that is involved in many cellular processes, including the conversion of food into energy for the body.
- Studies show that niacin can help improve heart health, protect against type 1 diabetes, prevent erectile dysfunction, keep your skin healthy, boost brain function and reduce arthritis symptoms.
- Niacin is available in supplement form and is sometimes prescribed for certain health conditions such as high cholesterol levels. However, taking high doses of niacin can increase the risk of adverse side effects.
- Eating plenty of niacin foods as part of a balanced diet is the best way to increase niacin levels.
- Niacin-rich foods include meat, fish, poultry, and plant foods like mushrooms, asparagus, sunflower seeds, peanuts and green peas.
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