Niacin is a general term that refers to two forms of vitamin B3, nicotinic acid and niacinamide. Humans need niacin to remain healthy, and although the liver can slowly make very small amounts of niacin, most niacin must come from foods or dietary supplements.

Niacin deficiency is called pellagra. Pellagra affects the skin, digestive tract, and brain. The best-known symptom is a rash that becomes darker when exposed to light. In later stages, the digestive system may become inflamed, and finally the nervous system is affected.


Niacin is a necessary part of the cycle in which the body breaks down carbohydrates, fats, and proteins and converts them into energy. Niacin also plays a role in the production of certain hormones in the adrenal glands and in helping the liver remove harmful chemicals from the body.


Niacin belongs to the B-complex group of water-soluble vitamins. Scientists working with extracts of nicotine from tobacco first discovered nicotinic acid in the 1930s. Because nicotinic acid turned out to be a vitamin essential to health, scientists created the name niacin by using the first two letters of “nicotinic” and “acid” and the last two letters of “vitamin.” They did not want a health-promoting vitamin to be associated with nicotine and tobacco.



Recommended dietary allowance (mg)

Tolerable upper intake level (mg)

Children 0-6 mos.

2 (AI)

Not established

Children 7-12 mos.

4 (AI)

Not established

Children 1-3 yrs.



Children 4-8 yrs.



Children 9-13 yrs.



Boys 14-18 yrs.



Girls 14-18 yrs.



Men 19≥ yrs.



Women 19≥ yrs.



Pregnant women 18≤ yrs.



Pregnant women 19≥ yrs.



Breastfeeding women 18≤ yrs.



Breastfeeding women 19≥ yrs.




Niacin (mg)

Cereal, fortified, 1 cup


Tuna, light, packed in water, 3 o7.


Chicken, light meat, 3 oz.


Ralmnn 3 П7


Cereal, unfortified, 1 cup


Turkey, light meat, 3 oz.


Beef, lean, 3 oz.


Pasta, enriched, 1 cup cooked


Bread, whole wheat, 1 slice


Asparagus, cooked, У2 cup


Carrots, raw, У2 cup


Coffee, brewed, 1 cup


AI = Adequate intake

mg = milligram

SOURCE: Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Vitamin B12, Pantothenic Acid, Biotin, and Choline. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 1998. (accessed April 13, 2018).

Sources of niacin

Good sources of niacin include red meat, poultry, fish, and fortified cereals. A niacin fortification program began in the United States in 1938 when supplemental niacin was added to bread. Today niacin is routinely added to flour, cereals, bread, and pasta. These products can be labeled “fortified” or “enriched.” Because of niacin fortification, most healthy Americans get enough niacin from their diet without taking a dietary supplement. Niacin is also found in multivitamins, B-complex vitamins, and as a single-ingredient supplement.

Niacin is one of the more stable B vitamins and is not degraded or lost by exposure to heat, light, or air.

Cracked and inflamed skin of a man, a symptom that his diet is deficient in vitamin B3, a disorder that is known as pellagra.

Cracked and inflamed skin of a man, a symptom that his diet is deficient in vitamin B3, a disorder that is known as pellagra.
(M.A. Ansary/Science Source)

The following list gives the approximate niacin content for some common foods:

Niacin deficiency

Niacin, like other B-complex vitamins, is used in enzyme reactions that break down fats, carbohydrates, proteins, and alcohol into smaller molecules that can be used to produce energy or to build up different molecules necessary to create new cells. Most of the niacin a person needs must come from food. The liver does synthesize small amounts of niacin from tryptophan, an amino acid found in protein. However, this process is very slow, and it takes 60 mg of tryptophan to create 1 mg of niacin. Therefore, for humans to get enough niacin to maintain health, they must eat niacin-rich foods or take a dietary supplement containing niacin.

Diets that contain little or no niacin over time will result in a disorder called pellagra. Symptoms of pellagra include cracked, dry, scaly skin (pellagra means “rough skin” in Italian), swollen tongue, sore mouth, diarrhea, and mental changes. Left untreated, pellagra is fatal. Symptoms of less severe niacin deficiency include fatigue, mouth sores, vomiting, headache, depression, and memory loss.

Pellagra was common in the United States during the 1940s, particularly among poor people living in the South whose diet consisted mostly of corn and cornmeal. Corn contains niacin, but the niacin is bound to other molecules in a way that make it unavailable for use in the body. Many people in Mexico and Central America survive mainly on a diet of corn products. However, the tradition of soaking corn in solution containing alkaline lime before cooking, releases the bound niacin so that it is available to the body. This explains why people living in Mexico and Central American rarely develop pellagra despite corn being a staple in their diet.

In 1938, the United States began a program to add niacin to bread. The fortification program resulted in a dramatic drop in the number of people developing pellagra. Today in the United States, those at highest risk of developing niacin deficiency are people with alcoholism, people with anorexia nervosa (self-starvation), and people with Hartnup's disease (a rare genetic disorder that affects the ability of the body to absorb tryptophan).

Niacin and cardiovascular disease

Over-the-counter niacin dietary supplements can be used to treat cardiovascular disease, but many physicians prefer high-dose prescription niacin. When sold as a prescription drug, the manufacturing process is more strictly controlled than it is for niacin sold as a dietary supplement. Niacin is available in a variety of immediate-, slow- or extended-release tablets or capsules and as a liquid. It is sold under many brand names including Niacor, Niaspan, Nicolar, Nicotinex Elixir, Slo-niacin, and Novo-Niacin.

Niacin and other diseases

Several studies have examined the effect of large doses of niacin on preventing the development of type 1 (insulin-dependent) diabetes in high-risk individuals. Nicotinic acid was found to have no effect, but the results of studies using niacinamide were mixed. Research continues in this area. Research is also being done on whether niacin supplementation can decrease the risk of developing certain cancers. Again, the results are not clear. The same is true for studies looking at niacin supplementation as a way of preventing or delaying osteoporosis. Clinical trials are underway to determine safety and effectiveness of niacin both alone and in combination with other vitamins and drugs in preventing or treating cancer, cardiovascular disease, and dementias such as Alzheimer's disease. Individuals interested in participating in a clinical trial at no charge can find a list of open trials at .

Recommended intake

The United States Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academy of Sciences has developed values called Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) for vitamins and minerals. The DRIs consist of three sets of numbers. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) defines the average daily amount of the nutrient needed to meet the health needs of 97%–98% of the population. The Adequate Intake (AI) is an estimate set when there is not enough information to determine an RDA. The Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) is the average maximum amount that can be taken daily without risking negative side effects. The DRIs are calculated for children, adult men, adult women, pregnant women, and breastfeeding women.

Alzheimer's disease—
An incurable disease of older individuals that results in the destruction of nerve cells in the brain and causes gradual loss of mental and physical functions.
Amino acid—
Molecules that are the basic building blocks of proteins.
B-complex vitamins—
A group of water-soluble vitamins that often work together in the body. These include thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), biotin (B7 or vitamin H), niacin/folic acid (B9), and cobalamin (B12).
Dietary supplement—
A product, such as a vitamin, mineral, herb, amino acid, or enzyme, that is intended to be consumed in addition to an individual's diet with the expectation that it will improve health.
A protein that changes the rate of a chemical reaction within the body without being depleted in the reaction.
A condition found in older individuals in which bones decrease in density and become fragile and more likely to break. It can be caused by lack of vitamin D and/or calcium in the diet.
A family of compounds that share a similar chemical structure. This family includes the hormones estrogen and testosterone, vitamin D, cholesterol, and the drugs cortisone and prednisone.
A nutrient that the body needs in small amounts to remain healthy but that the body cannot manufacture for itself and must acquire through diet.
Water-soluble vitamin—
A vitamin that dissolves in water and can be removed from the body in urine.

The following are the daily RDAs and AIs and ULs for niacin for healthy individuals:


It must be emphasized that people who take high doses of niacin to lower cholesterol and improve cardiovascular health must treat niacin like a prescription drug and take it only under the direction of a physician. When high doses of niacin are prescribed, the dosage is increased gradually until the desired amount is reached in order to reduce unpleasant of side effects. Niacin should not be stopped suddenly without consulting a physician. Individuals who take large doses of niacin may need regular blood tests to determine the effectiveness of the treatment.

Studies on the safety of high doses of niacin during pregnancy have not been done. Niacin passes into breast milk and may cause unwanted side effects in breastfed babies. Pregnant and nursing women should consult their physician about whether to reduce or discontinue high-dose niacin supplements.


Niacin, especially at high doses, may interact with other drugs. Before starting niacin supplementation, patients should review with their physician all the prescription, over-the-counter, and herbal medications that they are taking. Some common drug interactions are:



When niacin is consumed within the established DRI range, complications are rare. However, when niacin is taken in therapeutic doses to treat disease, serious side effects may develop. The most common side effect is burning, tingling, or hot sensation in the face and chest along with flushed skin. This occurs most often at doses of 75 mg or higher. Building up slowly to large doses of niacin may reduce the sensation, as may taking aspirin 30 minutes before taking niacin. Other side effects include abdominal pain, dizziness, diarrhea, faintness, itchy skin, vomiting, unusual thirst, and irregular heartbeat. Liver damage may also occur at high doses.

Parental concerns

Niacin deficiency almost never occurs in children, and niacin is not taken in large doses by children to prevent disease. When taken within established DRI ranges, parents should have few concerns about niacin.

See also Oral health and nutrition ; Whole grains .



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Higdon, Jane, Victoria J. Drake, and Barbara Delage. “Niacin.” Linus Pauling Institute, Oregon State University. (accessed April 12, 2018).

Mayo Clinic staff. “Niacin Can Boost ‘Good,’ Cholesterol.” . (accessed April 12, 2018).

MedlinePlus. “Niacin.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. (accessed April 12, 2018).

U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Library. “DRI Tables and Application Reports.” Food and Nutrition Information Center. (accessed March 15, 2018).


Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 120 South Riverside Plz., Ste. 2000, Chicago, IL, 60606-6995, (312) 899-0040, (800) 877-1600,, .

Food and Nutrition Information Center, National Agricultural Library, 10301 Baltimore Ave., Rm. 105, Beltsville, MD, 20705, (301) 504-5414, Fax: (301) 504-6409,, .

Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, 500 Fifth St. NW, Washington, DC, 20001, (202) 334-2352,, .

Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health, 6100 Executive Blvd., Rm. 3B01, MSC 7517, Bethesda, MD, 20892-7517, (301) 435-2920, Fax: (301) 480-1845,, .

Tish Davidson, A.M.
Revised by Laura Jean Cataldo, RN, EdD

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.