The Nation's Health + Nutrition

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Niacin: Blame the niacin

Despite the fact that niacin is:

1) A vitamin--vitamin B3

2) One of the oldest cholesterol-reducing agents around with a long-standing track record of effectiveness and safety

3) Available as a prescription drug as well as a variety of "nutritional supplements"

most physicians remains shockingly unaware of its benefits, effects, and side-effects. Most, in fact, are either ignorant or frightened of advising their patients on niacin use. As a result, I commonly have to tell my patients to resume the niacin that their primary care physician has (wrongly) stopped because of itchy feet, grumpiness, groin rash, urinary tract infections, nightmares, diarrhea, hair loss, runny nose, etc. All of these are REAL reasons doctors have advised patients to stop niacin (though none were actually due to niacin).

Is niacin really that troublesome? No, it's not. In fact, if used properly, it's among the most effective and safe tools available for correction of low HDL, small LDL and other triglyceride-containing lipoproteins, lipoprotein(a), and dramatic reduction of heart attack risk. If added to a statin agent, the heart attack risk reduction can approach 90% .

Statins are just too easy for doctors to prescribe. Niacin, on the other hand, requires a good 15-20 minutes to describe how to use it. It could generate an occasional phone call from a patient who struggles with the annoying but largely harmless and temporary "hot-flush" feeling, a lot like a hot blush. Given a choice, most doctors would simply choose not to be bothered. For this reason, I'll commonly see many, many people with uncorrected low HDLs and other patterns.

Have a serious discussion and press for confident answers if you find your doctor reflexively telling you that the wart on your thumb should be blamed on niacin.

Here are the steps we advise that really make taking niacin easy and tolerable:

1) Take with dinner.

2) Take with 2 extra glasses of water. If you experience the hot-flush later on, drink an additional 2 8-12 oz glasses of water i.e., a total of 16-24 oz). Extra hydration is extremely effective for blocking the hot-flush.

3) Take a 325 mg, uncoated aspirin. This is only necessary in the beginning or with any increase in dose, rarely chronically for any length of time.

This is not to say that there aren't occasional people who are truly and genuinely intolerant to niacin. It does happen. But those people are a small minority, less than 5% of people in my experience. Niacin is far more effective and safe than most physicians would have you believe.

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