Niacin to improve cholesterol numbers
Niacin is an important B vitamin that may raise levels of high-density lipoproteins (HDL), the "good" cholesterol, and lower triglycerides.By Mayo Clinic Staff
Niacin has long been used to lower triglycerides and to increase high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. This "good" cholesterol helps remove low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, the "bad" cholesterol, from the bloodstream.
But niacin isn't for everyone. People who take niacin in addition to common cholesterol medications see very little additional benefit. And niacin can cause uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous side effects.
What is niacin?
Niacin (nicotinic acid) is a B vitamin that's used by the body to turn food into energy. Niacin also helps keep the nervous system, digestive system and skin healthy. That's why niacin is often a part of a daily multivitamin, though most people get enough niacin from the food they eat.
When it's used as a treatment to improve cholesterol numbers or correct a vitamin deficiency, niacin is sold in higher doses available by prescription.
Niacin is also available as an over-the-counter supplement. Supplements are not regulated like prescription medications. The ingredients, formulations and effects of over-the-counter niacin can vary widely.
Don't take niacin without discussing it with your health care provider first because niacin can cause serious side effects when taken in high doses.
What impact does niacin have on cholesterol?
Niacin can lower triglycerides by 25% and raise HDL cholesterol by more than 30%.
Triglyceride levels over 150 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) or 1.7 millimoles per liter (mmol/L) have been associated with a higher risk of heart disease.
The risk of heart disease is also increased in men who have HDL levels below 40 mg/dL (1.0 mmol/L) and in women who have HDL levels below 50 mg/dL (1.3 mmol/L).
There's currently some debate about the exact role HDL plays in the body and in the development of heart disease. But HDL has generally been thought to pick up excess bad cholesterol in the blood and take it to the liver for disposal, which is why HDL is dubbed the good cholesterol.
Despite niacin's ability to lower triglycerides and raise HDL, research suggests that niacin therapy isn't linked to lower rates of death, heart attack or stroke.
What side effects are associated with taking high doses of niacin?
High doses of niacin available via prescription can cause:
- Severe skin flushing combined with dizziness
- Rapid heartbeat
- Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
- Liver damage
Who might consider taking niacin?
In the past, it was thought that HDL levels would increase even more if niacin were added to cholesterol-lowering medications called statins, such as atorvastatin (Lipitor) and simvastatin (Zocor). But newer studies indicate that niacin provides little additional benefit when compared with statins alone.
However, niacin may be helpful in people who can't tolerate statins or other cholesterol-lowering medications. Some studies suggest that people with high triglycerides and low HDL cholesterol may benefit from niacin.
What else can be done to increase HDL?
Lifestyle changes are helpful in boosting HDL:
- Stop smoking if you're a smoker.
- Eat a healthy diet.
- Exercise regularly.
- Avoid consuming trans fats or partially hydrogenated oils.
June 07, 2022
From Mayo Clinic to your inbox
Sign up for free, and stay up to date on research advancements, health tips and current health topics, like COVID-19, plus expertise on managing health.
ErrorEmail field is required
ErrorInclude a valid email address
To provide you with the most relevant and helpful information, and understand which
information is beneficial, we may combine your email and website usage information with
other information we have about you. If you are a Mayo Clinic patient, this could
include protected health information. If we combine this information with your protected
health information, we will treat all of that information as protected health
information and will only use or disclose that information as set forth in our notice of
privacy practices. You may opt-out of email communications at any time by clicking on
the unsubscribe link in the e-mail.
Thank you for subscribing!
You'll soon start receiving the latest Mayo Clinic health information you requested in your inbox.
Sorry something went wrong with your subscription
Please, try again in a couple of minutes
See more In-depth
- Blood cholesterol. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/hbc#. Accessed March 1, 2017.
- Rosenson RS. Low-density lipoprotein cholesterol lowering with drugs other than statins and PCSK9 inhibitors. http://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed March 1, 2022.
- Niacin. Natural Medicines. https://naturalmedicines.therapeuticresearch.com. Accessed March 1, 2022.
- Pazirandeh S, et al. Overview of water-soluble vitamins. http://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed March 1, 2022.
- Cholesterol medications. American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cholesterol/prevention-and-treatment-of-high-cholesterol-hyperlipidemia/cholesterol-medications. Accessed March 1, 2022.
- Cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL), serum. Mayo Clinic Laboratories. https://www.mayocliniclabs.com/test-catalog/overview/8429#Clinical-and-Interpretive. Accessed March 16, 2022.
- Lopez-Jimenez F (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic. April 7, 2022.
- Maki KC, et al. Triglyceride-lowering therapies reduce cardiovascular disease event risk in subjects with hypertriglyceridemia. Journal of Clinical Lipidology. 2016; doi:10.1016/j.jacl.2016.03.008.