Niacin, also known as nicotinic acid, is a water-soluble nutrient that belongs to the vitamin B family. As such, it is commonly referred to as vitamin B3. There are numerous health benefits of niacin, not the least of which is playing a key role in cellular metabolism since it is a building block of several enzymes and coenzymes. However, there are more niacin benefits to appreciate, such as contributing to the manufacture of adrenal hormones, producing energy from protein and carbohydrates, and repairing DNA.
One of the primary activities of niacin is to assist other B vitamins in metabolizing fats and converting carbohydrates into glucose to provide fuel for energy. In terms of intracellular metabolism, niacin in received by G protein-coupled receptors where it is converted into nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide and ultimately into nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate. These events are the metabolic pathways which enable cells to receive signals from each other and engage in enzymatic activity. Niacin is also required for normal nervous system functioning and for healthy hair, skin, and nails.
Other health benefits of niacin include the regulation of cholesterol and serum triglyceride levels. In fact, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that niacin may be more effective at increasing HDL cholesterol (the “good” kind) than many prescription medications. However, supplementation without the supervision of a physician is not recommended. For one thing, long-term, high doses of niacin can damage the liver. For another, niacin increases levels of homocysteine, which has been linked to an increased risk of developing heart disease.
Some benefits of niacin come from another form of this nutrient—niacinamide. At least one preliminary study indicates that this form of niacin may improve symptoms associated with arthritis, as well as reducing the need for anti-inflammatory medications. Other studies show that niacinamide may help to reduce insulin resistance in diabetes type I. Additional studies suggest that niacin and its derivatives may play a role in preventing Alzheimer’s disease.
Although niacin is involved in the above processes and more, it is one of the essential nutrients. This means that the body is unable to synthesize this nutrient to an adequate degree to be rewarded with all of the benefits of niacin. Instead, it must be obtained from food sources and/or dietary supplements. However, the liver can manufacture small amounts of niacin from tryptophan, an amino acid found in proteins contained in milk, eggs, cheese, soybeans, and meat. Otherwise, the best natural sources of niacin include beef, beef liver and kidneys, poultry, salmon, legumes, beets, brewer’s yeast, peanuts, and sunflower seeds.