Vitamin B3 (also known as niacin) is water soluble vitamin that is part of the B complex group of vitamins (a group of eight individual vitamins which were initially thought to be a singular vitamin B). The discovery of vitamin B3 is linked with a disease called pellagra (which causes the skin to become red and rough and can ultimately prove fatal). In the 1900s this disease was nearly epidemic and there were a number of rumours circulating regarding how it was caused. In 1915 Dr Joseph Goldberger linked the disease with diet. He added lean meat, eggs, milk or yeast to the diets of some pellagra sufferers and the disease went away. Conrad Elvenhjem followed up on Goldberger’s study in 1937 and successfully identified niacin as the dietary substance which cured pellagra when he used it to cure the disease in dogs. As a result Conrad Elvenhjem has been credited with the discovery of vitamin B3.
Like the vitamins B1 and B2, vitamin B3’s main role is to help the body’s cells convert blood sugar (from the foods we eat) into energy. On top of this vitamin B3 has further benefits which include:
– Promoting a healthy digestive system.
– Promoting healthy nerves.
– Reducing blood levels of low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (which clogs the arteries of the heart) whilst increasing blood levels of high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (which prevents hardening of the artery walls).
Men are advised to consume 19mg of vitamin B3 per day whilst women are advised to consume 15mg daily. The best sources of vitamin B3 are protein rich foods such as meat, eggs and peanuts. It can also be sourced from vegetables with mushrooms and green vegetables (brocolli, cabbage, peas, spinach etc) being good sources. Enriched whole grain products are also rich in vitamin B3.
A lack of vitamin B3 ultimately leads to pellagra, the disease discussed above. The first stages of pellagra manifest as weakness and loss of appetite. The next stages lead to the skin becoming rough and red. If pellagra is still left untreated after this diarrhea, dementia, and delirium develop. Pellagra ultimately causes death if left untreated.
Overdosing on vitamin B3 has negative side effects too. It can cause the blood vessels to expand which then leads to the skin becoming flushed – a condition known as niacin flush. High doses of niacin over a long period can also lead to liver damage.
Overall, vitamin B3 is very important for good overall health. If you consume a diet that contains adequate levels of protein then you should be easily getting enough each day. If not then try to add some additional protein to your diet, either through meat, vegetables or whole grain products. By doing this you will be able to avoid the potentially lethal pellagra whilst maintaining good overall health.