Vitamin B3 (sometimes just called niacin) comes in several different forms, all of which can be found in food. Some of the best dietary sources include tuna and chicken, but vegetarians can get plenty of B3 from mushrooms, and asparagus. When your body is severely deficient in this vitamin, you can develop a condition called pellagra. Pellagra is relatively rare in the US, but can show up in those with alcohol abuse problems, eating disorders and certain diseases that cause malabsorption. However, even a less dramatic deficiency of vitamin B3 can still be associated with certain symptoms that undermine well-being. Keep your eye out for the following nine warning signs that you’re not getting enough vitamin B3.
1. Digestive disturbances
Unpleasant changes in digestive function are probably the most commonly seen symptoms of niacin deficiency. You may experience diarrhea, suffer from indigestion (especially after meals), and might notice that your appetite is waning. Abdominal pain is also a possibility, as is unexplained vomiting. Of course, these digestive difficulties are generally more likely to be caused by bowel disorders, but a nutritional deficiency should be suspected if other key signs are seen.
2. High cholesterol
The majority of cases of high cholesterol are linked to a poor diet, but you also need adequate levels of niacin if your body is going to be able to regulate your cholesterol levels. In fact, niacin has long been used as a treatment for high cholesterol. If you’re lacking in vitamin B3, your body struggles to produce HDL (i.e. “good”) cholesterol, and you’re more likely to have high levels of LDL (i.e. “bad”) cholesterol. Consequently, you’re at a higher risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
When niacin levels are so low that pellagra develops, most patients start becoming confused and find their concentration is poor. Memory loss has also been documented, so it’s fair to say that niacin deficiency can sometimes present with the major symptoms of dementia.
4. Poor circulation
If you suffer from conditions associated with poor circulation, you may benefit from increasing the amount of vitamin B3 in your diet. For example, a niacin deficiency sometimes causes Raynaud’s disease—a common cause of coldness, pain and burning sensations in the hands in feet when exposed to low temperatures.
5. Skin lesions
Dermatitis usually develops in those with niacin deficiency, often creating scaly patches on areas of the skin that are exposed to sun (such as the backs of hands, neck and forearms). The rash is sometimes itchy, especially when it first appears. If you’re suffering from acne, it’s also possible that you should have your vitamin B3 levels reviewed (though note that an excess of vitamin B3 can also cause acne to appear—you have to get the balance just right!).
6. Mouth problems
Although most people get some painful canker sores from time to time, their appearance can become the norm if you’re chronically lacking in vitamin B3. They may appear on both the tongue and inside the cheeks. Glossitis—a type of tongue inflammation—can also develop, presenting with a smooth, swollen tongue that may be redder than usual.
7. Psychosensory disturbances
Vitamin B3 deficiency is associated with psychosensory changes—in other words, changes in how you perceive the world. Your tolerance for environmental stimuli goes down, making places like malls and concerts especially unpleasant. Bright lights may be more irritating, you might not be able to tolerate strong smells without feeling nauseated, and sudden movements (such as turning the head to one side) may induce dizziness.
8. Mood changes
Depression is the most commonly reported mood change linked to a lack of vitamin B3 in the diet. In addition to low mood, you may experience general fatigue and feel apathetic about hobbies that you previously enjoyed. However, depression isn’t the only psychological manifestation of niacin deficiency—aggression and irritability have also been experienced by some patients.
As with digestive discomfort, here are many different causes of insomnia—they range from chronic stress to dietary factors and underlying health problems that have nothing to do with a nutritional deficiency. However, if you experience insomnia in conjunction with several of the other symptoms mentioned above, it’s well worth asking your doctor whether a lack of appropriate vitamin B3 intake or absorption may explain your difficulties.
Finally, remember that you shouldn’t take vitamin B3 supplements (or any other new medication) without having a thorough discussion with your doctor. Excessive doses of vitamin B3 can cause liver damage, stomach ulcers, and the classic “niacin flush”—red, burning skin on the chest and face.