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Healthy Foods that Contain Niacin (Vitamin B3)

Niacin, also known as vitamin B3, is a water soluble B vitamin that actually refers to two similar compounds called nicotinic acid and nicotinamide. The term niacin was created in order to prevent people from confusing these two compounds with nicotine, the drug found in tobacco.

What Does Niacin Do In Your Body?

  • Through the action of coenzymes called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) and nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate (NADP), niacin allows your body to convert the carbohydrates, fat, protein, and alcohol that you consume into energy
  • Niacin helps your body synthesize needed fatty acids, cholesterol, and hormones
  • Niacin helps your body create its red blood cells

The following chart lists several healthy food sources of niacin:

Whole Food Sources Serving Niacin (mg)
Organic chicken - light meat 3 ounces 10.6
Wild salmon 3 ounces 8.5
Organic turkey - light meat 3 ounces 5.8
Organic peanuts or peanut butter 1 ounce 3.8
Grass-fed beef 3 ounces 3.1
Potato 1 medium 2.7
Lentils 1 cup (cooked) 2.1
Lima beans 1 cup (cooked) 1.8
Whole grain bread 1 slice 1.1

Signs Of A Niacin Deficiency

  • A thick, scaly, dark rash on areas of your skin that are regularly exposed to sunlight - presents itself bilaterally
  • Development of a bright red tongue
  • Unexplained vomiting and diarrhea
  • Unexplained neurological symptoms, the most common of which are memory loss, disorientation, depression, apathy, fatigue, and headache

A combination of most or all of the symptoms listed above can be diagnosed as a condition called pellagra, which equates with a severe, late stage niacin deficiency. If left untreated, pellagra will almost certainly lead to an early death.

Pellagra and even early stage niacin deficiency are both extremely rare in developed countries. Not only do most people in developed countries eat enough foods that contain niacin, they also consume adequate amounts of an amino acid called tryptophan, which is plentiful in protein-dense foods and can be converted to niacin in the body.

Two groups of people who are at risk of suffering from a niacin deficiency are:

  1. Those whose diets are extremely poor and deficient in overall calories and micronutrients.
  2. Those whose diets are very low in protein and who rely on corn and/or cornmeal as a staple.

Niacin and tryptophan that are naturally found in corn are not well absorbed by humans. The exception to this rule is if the corn is exposed to an alkaline solution prior to being eaten - this step unbinds niacin from corn and makes it readily available for absorption by humans. A good example of this is the soaking of corn in a lime solution before making traditional corn tortillas in Mexico.

Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for Niacin
Life Stage Age Males (mg NE*/day) Females (mg NE/day)
Infants 0-6 months 2 (AI) 2 (AI)
Infants 7-12 months 4 (AI) 4 (AI)
Children 1-3 years 6 6
Children 4-8 years 8 8
Children 9-13 years 12 12
Adolescents 14-18 years 16 14
Adults 19 years and older 16 14
Pregnancy all ages - 18
Breastfeeding all ages - 17

*NE, niacin equivalent: 1 mg NE = 60 mg of tryptophan = 1 mg niacin

AI = Adequate Intake

Toxicity

Because niacin is a water-soluble B vitamin, excess intake is usually excreted by the kidneys.

Most clinicians agree that up to approximately 1,000 mg of niacin per day for therapeutic purposes is safe. Consuming more than this amount may cause liver damage and possibly hyperuricemia, a condition whereby uric acid rises in the blood and increases the risk of developing gout.

Interactions With Other Nutrients

  1. As mentioned above, tryptophan can be converted to niacin.
  2. Vitamin B6 is needed to convert tryptophan to niacin.
  3. Tryptophan competes with another amino acid called leucine when it comes to being absorbed and utilized in the body. Excess intake of leucine over a long period of time can potentially cause tryptophan and niacin deficiencies.
  4. Niacin works together with thiamin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, vitamin B6, and biotin to produce energy from carbohydrates, protein, and fat.

Therapeutic Uses

  1. Large doses of niacin, in the form of nicotinic acid, is sometimes used to lower total blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels. I do not recommend using niacin for this purpose; it is far better for overall health to normalize blood cholesterol and tryglyceride levels through proper food and lifestyle choices because niacin can cause a "flushing" effect in the body, which represents physiologically stressful manipulation of blood vessel diameter.
  2. Large doses of niacin appear to be helpful for some cases of schizophrenia.

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