Vitamin B3 / Niacin 

In many ways Riboflavin and Niacin are similar, but if they were related niacin would be riboflavin’s cooler older sibling. Niacin exists as nicotinic acid (or niacin) and nicotinamide (or niacinamide). Note, nicotine is not a vitamin and while both nicotine and nicotinamide have chemical structures with nitrogen-containing rings, the difference between them is like the difference between laughter and slaughter. 

What is it?
Nicain is readily absorbed from the stomach and intestine which means it gets absorbed faster and more efficiently than other vitamins that are only absorbed in the small intestine. Almost all niacin consumed is absorbed. Unlike riboflavin, niacin doesn’t need to be consumed with food because niacin absorption doesn’t rely on stomach acids to make it absorbable. Unlike riboflavin, which needs to be escorted into the system, niacin is effortlessly absorbed via passive diffusion.

Where does it come from?
Niacin is so important to our bodies that, should we fail to consume enough of it, we can synthesize it from the amino acid tryptophan. Notably, this reaction requires the help of riboflavin coenzymes. Rich sources of niacin include mushrooms, wheat bran, tuna, chicken, turkey, asparagus, peanuts and animal proteins (which are rich in tryptophan). Approximately 90 grams of protein can result in 15 milligrams of niacin. The RDA is 16 milligrams per day for male adults; 14 milligrams per day for female adults. The Daily Value is 20 milligrams.

Niacin is so prized and popular that the niacin molecules in corn are under lockdown. Corn’s content of niacin is similar to that of rice, and is considerably higher than that of most other vegetables. However, a protein in corn binds the vitamin and severely limits its absorption. Soaking corn in alkaline solution such as lime water releases the bound niacin, thus making it available for absorption. 

What does it do?
Niacin is everywhere in the body. Niacin is like that person everyone wants at their party. Riboflavin and niacin participate in redox reactions, but niacin is undeniably more ubiquitous. Niacin participates in at least 200 reactions, most of those used to produce ATP (the chemical form of energy). Like riboflavin, niacin’s role is to collect hydrogens to “feed the dragon”, the electron transport chain, which ultimately results in a release of energy (see riboflavin chapter for dragon metaphor explanation). Despite the similar role, niacin far outshines riboflavin by the sheer number of reactions it participates in. Really, there’s no contest. Another reason adults should appreciate niacin is its role in alcohol metabolism. Niacin helps the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase convert alcohol to acetaldehyde.

A deficiency in niacin affects the whole body because niacin is used in so many metabolic reactions. Niacin deficiency leads to Pellagra, which comes from the Italian words pelle (skin) and agra (rough). When this deficiency was first discovered in 1735 by Spanish physician Casal, it was named mal de la rosa or Red Sickness. Signs of the deficiency included a red rash in the skin exposed to the sun, especially the neckline (hence the phrase “Casal’s necklace”). Pellagra symptoms are more commonly known as the three D’s: dementia, diarrhea and dermatitis. It can also be known for its dietary deficiency disaster.

Niacin is the only vitamin whose deficiency disease reached epidemic proportions in the United States. In 1915, more than 10,000 Americans died of Pellagra and an estimated 200,000 more suffered from the disease. Some people had dementia so severe they were put into mental institutions. How did this disease get so bad? It was the increase in corn consumption.

Niacin deficiencies became wide-spread through Europe during the 1700s as corn became more of a dietary staple. Spanish settlers in Latin American learned the ways of the native populations that soaked the corn in lime water before cooking, thereby releasing niacin from its protein lockdown. During the early 1900s, consumption of corn rose dramatically in the United States but the value of this soaking treatment was misunderstood. The cause of Pellegra was also misunderstood, and it affected so many lives for so many years because it was thought to be contagious.

Cue the hero: Dr. Joseph Goldberger. Dr. Goldberger, a public health specialist, proved that Pellagra was not contagious by exposing himself and his colleagues to biological samples from patients with Pellagra. One can only imagine the confidence and bravery it took to carry this out. Suffice to say, Dr. Goldberger helped resolve the dietary deficiency disaster by proving the cause and providing the cure. With the introduction of niacin-enriched grains in 1941 and post-wartime increases in protein consumption, Pellagra eventually disappeared in the United States.

One final reason to admire niacin is its role in combating atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). When under supervision of a qualified physician and when combined with appropriate diet and exercise, doses 75-100 times the RDA (“mega-doses”) of nicotinic acid may help lower “bad cholesterol” LDL levels and increase “good cholesterol” HDL levels. Prescriptions are normally provided in 1.5 – 2.0 grams nicotinic acid per day. One cannot and should not self-medicate and attempt to mega-dose without the help of a physician because this amount of niacin can cause serious side effects. Mega-doses of niacin are provided with a time- release coating that should minimize flushing of the skin, itching, gastrointestinal distress with nausea and vomiting, and liver damage. 

How does this relate to energy?
The sheer number of energy-related chemical reactions niacin participates in make it an excellent candidate to add to an energy drink. However, a note of caution: the upper level of niacin intake is based on an effect called the Niacin Flush. At a daily dose as low as 35 milligrams, some people experience a red flush of the skin and itching. At amounts around 1.5 grams, other, more serious side effects like GI distress and liver damage have been reported. This flushing does not occur with niacin consumed from food, only supplemental niacin.

Even if you’re playing poker, a Niacin Flush is something to be avoided.

Read more about other energy drink ingredients in:

Are You a Monster or a Rock Star: A Guide to Energy Drinks — How They Work, Why They Work, How to Use Them Safely