Nowadays, it is pretty much impossible not to have heard about vitamin B3. After all, hectic lifestyles and diets have more or less forced us into turning towards alternative forms of medicine and health-seeking, with vitamins of all sorts being one of our first choices in this sense. But have you ever thought that this seemingly innocent supplementation might come bearing some drawbacks as well? While the notoriety of vitamin B3 side effects has at times surpassed that of its positive influence on the human body, it is nonetheless time to set the record straight and see what is fact and what should remain fiction with regards to this compound.
What is vitamin B3?
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Vitamin B3 is a water-soluble compound pertaining to the B-complex vitamins. It is also known as niacin, nicotinic acid or niacinamide (although there are some considerable chemical differences between these variants). Vitamin B3 is often associated with vitamin A, vitamin B1, vitamin C, and vitamin D as being one of the five crucial components of a healthy and mentally thriving individual.
The first scientific discovery of vitamin B3 dates back to the beginning of the 20th century when a widespread epidemic of seemingly unrelated symptoms affected many populations suffering from malnutrition and poverty. These symptoms include nausea, inflammation, photodermatitis (skin sensitivity to sunlight), severe diarrhea, and a number of neurological imbalances (insomnia, aggressiveness, confusion, dementia, etc.).
The phenomenon – which will later become known as pellagra (from the Italian for ‘skin disease’) – prompted contemporary scientists to look further into this matter, with a group of American researchers pinpointing that a severe lack of vitamin B3 was the cause of these health issues. It was concluded that such populations relied mostly on a maize-based diet that did not offer all the necessary nutrients for normal energetic intake.
One upside of vitamin B3 deficiencies is that they are easy to treat by simply increasing a person’s niacin intake either gradually or in larger quantities (depending on how advanced their condition is). In most cases, nicotinamide supplementation is effective enough so as to do away with the aforementioned instances of pellagra in its milder manifestations, but with a more reduced toxicity than vitamin B3 itself (as you will see later on).
Where can you find vitamin B3?
Vitamin B3 can be predominantly found in foods of animal origin, namely meats. Fish such as tuna, salmon, and mackerel rank among the most niacin-rich meats, with turkey, chicken breast, lamb liver, beef, and pork also being nutritious sources of vitamin B3 enhancement. Eggs can also be included in this category.
Similarly, vitamin B3 is present in a wide variety of vegetables: from sweet potatoes, green peas, carrots, and mushrooms to leafy greens, asparagus, broccoli, and tomatoes, you are very likely to meet your daily intake of this vitamin by maintaining a nutritious and diversified regime. The same goes for fruit like avocados and dates, as well as nuts (peanuts, Macadamia nuts, pecan nuts) and seeds (whole grain products).
Remember: because vitamin B3 is a water-soluble element, it is always best to try and minimize its loss via cooking (such as boiling or steaming, for instance). While this option cannot be applied to meats for obvious safety reasons, fruit and vegetables which allow for raw consumption should generally be preferred for optimal nutrient assimilation.
More recently, supplement manufacturers have started focusing on vitamin B3 and its potential health impact, with numerous tablets and pills emerging on the market as a result. Their advantage (and simultaneous disadvantage, you could argue) is that they ‘pack’ a much more substantial quantity of vitamin B3 than you would otherwise acquire through a normal diet, which then permits for a much more elevated niacin enhancement.
What are the benefits of vitamin B3?
In the nutritional world, vitamin B3 is recognized as one of the many motors behind a variety of catabolic (‘breaking down’) activities that maintain your body healthy and happy at the same time. The basic function of this vitamin is to ensure that complex substances such as protein, fats, glucose, and carbohydrates are decomposed into smaller and easier to process elements. As a result, vitamin B3 contributes to muscle mass formation, bone strengthening (through calcium retention), gastrointestinal wellbeing, and better cardiovascular readings (by promoting constant lipolysis, boosting blood flow, and warding off the thickening of arterial walls over time).
Another key aspect of vitamin B3 is the fact that it has the ability to impact the duration and quality of sleeping patterns. Although modern and definitely hectic lifestyles rarely allow us to get a good night’s sleep on a regular basis, the presence of vitamin B3 actually works towards getting the right amount of melatonin released into your body at the correct time. This then translates into healthier cycles of Slow-Wave Sleep (or SWS), when your body reduces energy consumption to a minimum, in order to allow nutrients to be properly absorbed and your neurons to get some well-deserved rest as well.
Vitamin B3 also stimulates the production of Human Growth Hormone (HGH), which is simultaneously responsible for adolescent growth and adult wellness. HGH is correlated with cell regeneration and reproduction, as well as with normalized instances of homeostasis (internal balance), immunity boosting, liver and pancreatic protection, etc.
Other advantages created by vitamin B3 within the human organism are fewer episodes of inflammation, skin rejuvenation, increased screening against mental issues (like Parkinson’s and sclerosis, for example), and lowered cholesterol levels.
What are the side effects of vitamin B3?
Although predominantly helpful in terms of human health, vitamin B3 can also cause some serious damage if taken excessively or under certain medical conditions. Moreover, it can induce some harmless, yet unpleasant side effects as well, as you will see further on.
It might seem surprising to have such an ‘innocent’-looking vitamin cause any issues at all, but the fact of the matter is that even a nutritional enhancer can do more damage than good if employed inappropriately. So here are the most common cases negatively linked to vitamin B3 supplementation:
- ‘Niacin flush’ – as previously mentioned, vitamin B3’s vasodilatory properties are the reason behind why your blood circulation suddenly seems to accelerate after you take a niacin dosage.
For some, this simple form of supplementation can turn into a full-blown episode of what is now commonly known as ‘niacin flush’ or ‘niacin flushing’. A ‘niacin flush’ occurs within a couple of minutes of vitamin B3 administration and can last up to several hours at a time. This manifestation is characterized by a visible reddening of your scalp, face, and torso, accompanied by a sensation of itchiness, prickliness, sweating, and heat. Additionally, your skin can develop a splotchy appearance that is somewhat similar to that of an acute allergenic reaction.
Therefore, the higher the vitamin B3 dosage, the more pronounced the effects of this boosted vascular activity become. A normal adult needs around 11-16 mg/day of vitamin B3, whereas the upper daily limit for niacin intake is situated at approximately 35 mg/day. Compare this with most of the today’s dietary supplements, which usually recommend raising your vitamin intake up to anything between 25-50 mg and 3.000-4.000 mg/day. While the latter numbers are mostly isolated to those who suffer from cardiovascular diseases like thickened arterial walls, let’s say, you are also likely to come across ‘professional’ advice in favor of maximizing your vitamin B3 intake on the grounds of its overall safety.
Admittedly, a tolerance to ‘flushing’ caused by vitamin B3 can be acquired in time (at least 2-3 months) and by administering complementary medicine like aspirin to help reduce these symptoms, but it will also re-occur each time you increase the dosage and reach your upper threshold.
Other methods of reducing the intensity of this dermatological allergy to vitamin B3 include taking your regular dosage on a full stomach, opting for a slow-release form of supplementation, and avoiding hot and/ or alcoholic beverages when you take this vitamin.
- Organ toxicity – in theory, a water-soluble vitamin-like niacin should be excreted by your body in due time, even when used in excess…right? Well, yes and no.
Yes, you don’t have to worry if you accidentally took more vitamin B3 than you should have once or twice. Most likely, you might experience the aforementioned ‘flushing’ sensation and maybe some gastrointestinal discomfort. But, once this overindulgence in niacin becomes a habit, your body will show signs of straining pretty quickly.
Vitamin B3 build-ups become present when your body cannot correctly process the ‘extra’ amounts of this substance in its system. So, while vitamin B3 might generate therapeutic effects for immunity and spleen cells, it conversely results in toxic deposits in the case of the intestines, kidneys, and liver. In fact, it starts ‘competing’ with other substances such as uric acid for faster elimination and thus triggers an imbalance in your metabolic rhythms.
Not only do these excretory systems fail to manage a surplus of vitamin B3, but they also begin to ‘fall behind’ with their own metabolic functions. The consequence is that, in time, you begin to notice organ toxicity settling in the shape of abdominal discomfort, indigestion, liver failure, etc. Persistent fatigue and anorexia are the most obvious signs of hepatotoxicity.
Cutting down on your vitamin B3 intake or eliminating it completely should reduce the intensity of most of these symptoms, but more serious health issues induced by niacin excess should definitely be met with medical guidance and subsequent treatment.
- Gastrointestinal problems – even though they are less common than skin redness and organ damage over time, gastric and intestinal problems linked to vitamin B3 supplementation are transforming into more prominent issues as niacin concentrations continue to grow in said supplements.
Sensitive individuals might notice a series of manifestations otherwise associated with abdominal discomfort when taking vitamin B3 enhancers. Side effects in this instance include nausea, vomiting, distention (bloating), flatulence, diarrhea, indigestion, and peptic ulcers. You should immediately seek medical attention if you notice your stools turning light-grey or if your abdominal pains become debilitating over a short timeframe.
- General side effects – the pros and cons of using vitamin B3 enhancement always converge into its expansive influence over the human body, which can turn either good or bad. For example, the same vasodilatory effect of vitamin B3 that causes ‘flushing’ is also the culprit for an increase in heartbeat rhythms, palpitations, and respiratory problems (like dyspnea, for instance). In more susceptible individuals, such manifestations can lead to panic and anxiety attacks, and – paradoxically – worsen the perception of the initial effects as well.
In addition, the urinary system is equally affected by immoderate vitamin B3 consumption. As one of the major excretory pathways, the kidneys can be rapidly impacted by an accumulation of vitamin B3 surplus within the organism. Hyperuricemia – elevated concentrations of uric acid – is a clear-cut sign of niacin intoxication.
The ocular region is another ‘victim’ of vitamin B3 side effects, with almost 1% of niacin users claiming some sort of vision impairment connected with higher doses of this substance. Most commonly, you might notice an increased sensitivity to light and sun exposure, alongside episodes of blurred vision and ocular swelling (primarily of the eyelid). Severe cases are those of maculopathy or temporary blindness, which can, fortunately, be reversed by reducing vitamin B3 intake to a minimum.
In large doses, vitamin B3 supplementation can also impact your neurological system by negatively interfering with hormonal production. As a result, you might begin to notice a tendency towards irascibility, dizziness, nervousness, insomnia, prolonged fatigue, headaches, and migraines, etc.
Other side effects of vitamin B3 ‘abuse’ are diminished sexual drive and performance (particularly in men), thyroid changes, and muscle cramps (in the lower parts of the body, such as the legs).
Vitamin B3 and its potential side effects– conclusions
While generally harmless and beneficial, vitamin B3 should always be administered moderately by healthy individuals and under careful medical supervision by those who take it with a specific disease in mind.
After all, the goal is to boost your health, not damage it, which is why ‘caution’ and ‘self-control’ are definitely essential terms when it comes to niacin enhancement. Though vitamin B3 is not itself an addictive substance, its administration routine can quickly become one, so keep in mind not to fall into a nutritional ‘rabbit hole’ that might hinder your development and happiness as an individual instead of aid in establishing them as a normal state of being.
In conclusion, remember to put your health first, stay informed about vitamin B3 and its side effects, as well as what you can do to minimize them, and have this experience be a wholesome, enjoyable, and beneficial one in the end!