Niacin or nicotinic acid is known by the more common name of Vitamin B3, and forms an important member of the water-soluble B-group vitamins. Niacin has been shown to be useful in the treatment of skin and gastrointestinal disorders, circulatory problems, and mental and emotional disorders. In addition, niacin is an essential vitamin involved in the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins and thus assists in providing a pathway for the efficient release of energy from the food we eat.
Of particular importance are the cholesterol-lowering properties of niacin. Niacin comes in two basic forms—niacin (or nicotinic acid) and niacinamide (or nicotinamide)—however it is the niacin form that offers beneficial effects on heart health. Studies indicate that Niacin may lower total serum cholesterol levels, including the so-called “bad” LDL-cholesterol by 10% – 20% and total triglycerides by 20% – 45%, while simultaneously raising HDL, the so-called “good” cholesterol.
Niacin is often the first line of treatment proposed for regulating cholesterol levels as opposed to proprietary cholesterol-lowering pharmaceutical medications. It is the treatment of choice recommended by the National Cholesterol Education Program. Studies indicate that niacin can raise HDL levels by 30%, which has beneficial repercussions on the cardiovascular health of most Americans consuming a typical fat-rich diet.
Niacin is a relatively inexpensive and readily acquired supplement but should not be used as a cholesterol-lowering agent at high doses without the guidance of a healthcare professional due to the possible side effects associated with this vitamin. The most common is flushing, which is due to the relaxing effect of niacin on vein and arterial walls allowing for increased blood flow. Many patients can adjust to the effects of flushing, or minimize it through incorporating intake with meal times to reduce symptoms.
Niacin also increases the effect of blood pressure medications and this combined with possible liver problems, gout, and elevated blood sugar levels, means that the valuable benefits of this vitamin are best achieved under the guidance of a medical practitioner. Diabetics should not take niacin supplements except under medical advice.