Niacin is a very interesting vitamin. It is also known as vitamin B3, or nicotinic acid. It is an essential vitamin whose deficiency leads to a dreadful disease known as pellagra. In large doses of 1 to 3 g per day it has several effects on blood lipids, including these: it increases HDL cholesterol, decreases triglycerides, and decreases Lp(a). Given that this is essentially a reversal of the metabolic syndrome, for those who are on their way to developing it, niacin must really do something good for our body. Niacin is also a powerful antioxidant.
The lipid modification effects of niacin are so consistent across a broad spectrum of the population that some companies that commercialize niacin-based products guarantee some measure of those effects. The graphs below (click to enlarge) are from Arizona Pharmaceuticals, a company that commercializes an instant-release niacin formulation called Nialor (see: arizonapharmaceuticals.com). The graphs show the peak effects on HDL cholesterol and triglycerides at the recommended dose, which is 1.5 g per day. The company guarantees effects; not the peak effects shown, but effects that are large enough to have clinical significance.
Niacin also has been used in the treatment of various mental disorders, including schizophrenia. Its effectiveness in this domain (mental disease) is still under debate. Yet many people, including reputable mental health researchers, swear by it. Empirical research suggests beyond much doubt that niacin helps in the treatment of depression and bipolar disorder.
Abram Hoffer, a Canadian psychiatrist who died in 2009, at the age of 91, has discussed at length the many beneficial health effects of niacin. He was also a niacin user. He argued that it can even make people live longer, and be generally healthier and more active. The effect on longevity may sound far-fetched, but there is empirical data supporting this hypothesis as well. (For more, see this book.)
By the way, moderate niacin supplementation seems to increase the milk output of cows, without any effect on milk composition.
Most people dislike the sensation that is caused by niacin, the “niacin flush”. This is a temporary sensation similar to that of sunburn covering one’s full torso and face. It goes away after a few minutes. This is niacin’s main undesirable side effect at doses up to 3 g per day. Higher doses are not recommended, and can be toxic to the liver.
Nobody seems to understand very well how niacin works. This leads to some confusion. Many people think that niacin inhibits the production of VLDL, free fatty acids, and ketones; preventing the use of fat as an energy source. And it does!
So it makes you fat, right?
No, because these effects are temporary, and are followed, often after 3 to 5 hours, by a large increase in circulating growth hormone, cortisol and glucagon. These hormones are associated with (maybe they cause, maybe are caused by) a large increase in free fatty acids and ketones in circulation, but not with an increase in VLDL secretion by the liver. So ketosis is at first inhibited by niacin, and then comes in full force after a few hours.
The decreased VLDL secretion is no surprise, because VLDL is not really needed in large quantities if muscle tissues (including the heart) are being fed what they really like: free fatty acids and ketones. When VLDL particles are secreted by the liver in small numbers, they tend to be large. As they shrink in size after delivering their lipid content to muscle tissues, they become large LDL particles; too large to cross the endothelial gaps and cause plaque formation.
It is as if niacin held you back for a few hours, in terms of fat burning, and then released you with a strong push.
Since niacin does not seem to suppress the secretion of chylomicrons by the intestines, it should be taken with meals. The meals do not necessarily have to have any carbohydrates in them. If you take niacin while fasting, you may feel “funny” and somewhat weak, because of the decrease in VLDL, free fatty acids, and ketones in circulation. These, particularly the free fatty acids and ketones, are important sources of energy in the fasted state.
Given niacin’s delayed effects, it does not seem to make much sense to take slow release niacin of any kind. In fact, the form of niacin that seems to work best is the instant-release one, the one that gives you the flush. It may be a good idea to wait until 3 to 5 hours after you take it to do heavy exercise. You may feel a surge of energy 3 to 5 hours after taking it, when the delayed effects kick in.
The delayed effects of niacin on growth hormone, cortisol and glucagon are probably the reasons why people taking niacin frequently see a small increase in fasting glucose levels. This increase is usually of a few percentage points, but can be a bit higher in some people. Growth hormone, cortisol and particularly glucagon increase blood glucose levels; and the blood levels of these hormones naturally rise in the morning to get you ready for the day ahead. Niacin seems to boost that. Hence the increase in fasting blood glucose levels. This appears to be a benign effect, easily counterbalanced by niacin’s many benefits.
In spite of a possible increase in fasting glucose levels, there is no evidence that niacin increases average blood glucose levels. If it did, that would not be a good thing. In fact, it has been argued that niacin intake can be part of an effective approach to treating diabetes; Robert C. Atkins discussed this in his Vita-Nutrient Solution book.
Niacin’s effects on lipids are somewhat similar to those of low carbohydrate dieting. For example, both lead to a decrease in fasting triglycerides and an increase in HDL cholesterol. But the mechanisms by which those effects are achieved appear to be rather different.
Quabbe, H.J., Trompke, M., & Luyckx, A.S. (1983). Influence of ketone body infusion on plasma growth hormone and glucagon in man. J. Clin Endocrinol Metab., 57(3):613-8.
Quabbe, H.J., Luyckx, A.S., L'age M., & Schwarz, C. (1983). Growth hormone, cortisol, and glucagon concentrations during plasma free fatty acid depression: different effects of nicotinic acid and an adenosine derivative (BM 11.189). J. Clin Endocrinol Metab., 57(2):410-4.
Schade, D.S., Woodside, W., & Eaton, R.P. (1979). The role of glucagon in the regulation of plasma lipids. Metabolism, 28(8):874-86.