Get to Know Niacin: An Essential Nutrient

by Melissa Chichester

Vitamin B3, also known as niacin or nicotinic acid, is an essential water-soluble vitamin that is found in many foods. Amazingly, every part of your body needs niacin to function. While most dietary niacin is in the form of nicotinic acid and nicotinamide, the body can also convert small amounts of amino acid tryptophan into nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide. Because the body does not synthesize what it makes it very well, it is important to consume this valuable nutrient through foods. Let’s learn more about niacin’s interesting discovery, history, and benefits. 

The discovery of niacin 

Between 1906 and 1940 more than 100,000 Americans died from niacin deficiency. This is known as pellagra, a condition that occurs when a person does not get enough niacin or amino acid tryptophan. Today, niacin deficiency is not very common in the developed world. The existence of pellagra helped researchers discover the importance of niacin in the early 1900s, despite the condition having plagued many civilizations all over the world for centuries. 

In 1912, Polish-American biochemist Casimir Funk was trying to find a cure for beriberi, a disorder caused by thiamine deficiency (Vitamin B1). Nicotinic acid did not affect beriberi, but Funk continued to demonstrate that it likely had value. Austrian-American doctor Joseph Goldberger took over Funk’s research to figure out the connection between nicotinic acid and health.  

After a series of experiments conducted by Goldberger in 1915, it was discovered that disease (pellagra) was caused by a missing nutrient in corn. Finally, in 1937, American biochemist Conrad Arnold Elvehjem made the connection that nicotinic acid, or niacin, was the undiscovered link. 

Niacin in foods 

Many foods today are fortified with niacin, including cereals and bread; however, many foods naturally contain niacin as well. Foods that contain niacin include: 

  • Tuna
  • Turkey
  • Chicken
  • Ground pork
  • Veal 
  • Lentils 
  • Lima beans
  • Coffee 
  • Sardines
  • Green peas 
  • Asparagus 

If you do not receive enough niacin through foods, consider a niacin supplement. 

Niacin benefits 

Niacin serves many purposes in the body and has many benefits. 

Benefits of niacin include:

  • Supports heart and cardiovascular wellness*
  • Supports healthy circulation*
  • Contributes to energy metabolism*
  • Helps metabolize carbohydrates and protein*
  • Contributes to nervous system health*
  • Helps maintain healthy skin*

Niacin flush

Sometimes niacin can cause the skin to turn red and look flushed. Flush-free niacin supplements minimize or stop redness. Niacin flush can also be avoided by taking niacin supplements with a meal and drinking plenty of water.