Niacin is one of the B vitamins and is sometimes referred to as vitamin B-3 or nicotinic acid. Deficiencies of niacin are rare because it is found in many foods including dairy products, eggs, meats, legumes, nuts and enriched breads and cereals. Niacin is water soluble, which means your body will not store it -- so it is important to eat a well-balanced diet.
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Energy Conversion and Other Functions
One of the main functions of niacin, along with the other B vitamins, is to convert food to fuel that your body can use. The B vitamins also help metabolize fats and proteins. Niacin helps keep your skin, hair, eyes and liver healthy and is necessary to keep your nervous system functioning properly.
According to the MedlinePlus, niacin helps improve your cholesterol by raising your HDL, or the “good” cholesterol, and lowering your LDL, the “bad” cholesterol. It also lowers triglycerides. Some doctors may prescribe niacin supplements for people with high cholesterol, but talk to your doctor before taking over-the-counter niacin. Most people experience flushing as a side effect of taking higher doses of niacin. Ingesting too much niacin can also cause liver damage, increased blood sugar, skin rashes and ulcers.
Niacin deficiency causes a condition known as pellagra. Symptoms include digestive problems, skin inflammation and mental impairment. Niacin deficiency is rare.
Disease Prevention Studies
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, various studies are ongoing to determine if niacin is beneficial in preventing or delaying the onset of various diseases. Because niacin lowers LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, it may decrease atherosclerosis. Niacin may protect cells in the pancreas that produce insulin, thus delaying or preventing type 1 diabetes. One study showed that symptoms of arthritis were relieved with niacin. People who get more niacin in their diet may be less likely to get Alzheimer's disease. Topical creams containing niacin are being studied to determine if they can help prevent acne and skin cancer. More studies are needed to determine the exact role niacin might play in these areas.